Britain: Labour leading in an uninspiring election campaign

June 19, 2024
Keir Starmer and Nigel Farage with background of prison fence
Labour's Keir Starmer (centre) promises to cut immigration and build new prisons, playing to the voter base of far-right politicians like Nigel Farage (right). Photos:Wikipedia (CC By SA 2.0), Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC By SA 2.0 DEED)

The key moment, perhaps, in Britain’s July 4 general election campaign occurred in the economically deprived seaside town of Clacton on June 4, when Reform UK leader and far-right politician Nigel Farage — who led the campaign for Britain’s exit from the European Union — was splattered with a milkshake by 25-year-old local woman, Victoria Thomas-Bowen.

From unaffordable rents to rising unemployment to the climate crisis, politicians have largely ignored Britain’s most pressing issues and especially the needs of younger voters.

Since Conservative Party Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called the election, it has so far been a largely dull campaign, which from Brexit to Palestine, has ignored important issues and strategically focussed on trivia.

By “milkshaking” Farage, Thomas-Bowen briefly punctured the campaign. This was significant, a rare moment of youth participation.

Conservative loss predicted

While there are some complexities to the situation, the likely result is clear. The Conservatives — sitting on less than 20% in several recent polls — will lose and Labour will replace them. Labour under Keir Starmer have a significant lead over the Conservatives and in Britain’s first past the post electoral system this suggests a landslide victory.

However, despite the crisis in the Conservative Party, Starmer is seen as a bland centrist, with opposition to Conservative rule, rather than enthusiasm for Labour, motivating voters.

In Scotland, the formerly dominant Scottish National Party (SNP) have suffered internal conflict and falling voter support, helping Labour.

The Conservatives are threatened by Farage’s right-wing populist Reform, which aims to remake British politics.

The Greens are polling well and of perhaps most interest to those on the left, Labour is being strongly challenged by a number of independent candidates.

In the 2019 General Election Boris Johnson won as Conservative leader on a promise to stick with Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. The Conservatives traditionally dominate the British media and, with huge donations from hedge funds and elements of London’s finance capitalism, can out spend all other parties. Johnson, a charismatic but often dishonest leader, led the Conservatives to a landslide. His policy of “levelling up”, spending on infrastructure to boost the poorer North East of England, helped smash the so-called “Red Wall”, turning formerly Labour constituencies to Conservative blue.

Johnson, never known for his ethics, was revealed to have partied enthusiastically during the COVID-19 lockdown, where he promised to fine the rest of us for meeting up. The resulting scandal forced him out of office in 2022 and since it has only got worse for the governing party. His successor Liz Truss, a right-wing populist, nearly crashed the economy and was ousted after a couple of weeks. She was replaced by Sunak, a former hedge fund manager, who has failed to revive the government’s falling poll numbers.

Labour’s main electoral strength is not being the Conservatives, who have presided over falling incomes, rising poverty and economic chaos.

Starmer was elected by Labour members to succeed Jeremy Corbyn. Like Johnson, he is best known perhaps for the boldness and clarity of his lies. He won the support of Labour members promising radical policies from a Green New Deal to serious wealth redistribution and support for trade union rights.

All of this has been dropped, with Starmer signalling to the rich and powerful that he is no threat. Typically in an anaemic manifesto that promises little change to the Conservatives, he has headlined with promises to cut immigration and build new prisons.

Farage’s Reform UK is the latest incarnation of a series of right-wing, anti-EU, anti-climate action and, above all, anti-immigration parties led by him and is hoping to push British politics even further to the right.

One recent poll put Reform in second place to Labour, ahead of the Conservatives. At best, Reform is likely to win five constituencies and may fail to win any seats, but its support could push the Conservatives down to less than a hundred MPs.

Farage’s stated plan is to then merge with them as a much more explicitly far-right party, perhaps like Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD) or Donald Trump’s Republicans.

Sunak’s attempts to move right have failed to attract Reform voters so far in the campaign, but tend to alienate less right-wing voters, with the centrist Liberal Democrats also climbing in the polls and looking likely to take more Conservative constituencies. Thus the Conservatives look likely to lose voters to the centre if they move further right, or to the right if they tack to the centre. Barring an electoral miracle they will lose and lose very badly on July 4.

Labour’s left-wing challengers

While Starmer looks likely to win big, he is also facing some challenges. Moving Labour to the right, his party has been brutally expelling socialists and deselecting candidates — most notably, Corbyn.

Corbyn is now running as independent and could win his seat, beating Labour in Islington North.

Andrew Feinstein, another strong independent socialist, is running against Starmer in Holborn and St Pancras.

Dozens of socialist independents are running and picking up support from Muslim voters and others who are aghast at Starmer’s support for Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza. Some may win, denting Labour’s likely victory.

Former Labour MP George Galloway’s Workers Party of Britain is also providing a strong challenge to Starmer, especially on Gaza. Galloway won an impressive victory in the February 29 by-election for the North-West constituency of Rochdale.

The Workers Party is well organised, well financed and running in more than 150 constituencies and could inflict a number of defeats on Labour. Negatively, Galloway — like nearly all party leaders — is conscious of attracting right-wing voters. He combines progressive policies such as peace with an anti-net zero carbon emissions platform, similar to Farage and Galloway’s opposition to an independent Scotland means that, on the national question, his politics are the same as those of Labour and the Tories.

Scotland and Ireland

Most polls have put Labour ahead in Scotland, but the party’s opposition to Scottish independence and their rightward trajectory put them at risk. It is difficult to read the likely result with certainty, beyond the fact that the SNP will lose seats and Labour will gain.

In Northern Ireland, the unionist vote is looking fractured and there is a possibility that the Democratic Unionists — who generally ally with the Conservatives — could lose up to three MPs.

Unionism is in long-term decline, and despite the resistance of Labour and the Conservatives, a united Ireland looks ever more likely. Sinn Fein — the parliamentary wing of the republican movement — despite a modest showing in the local elections in the South, now leads electoral contests in the North.

The Greens are hampered by the electoral system but are gaining from Labour’s move to the right. They should retain Brighton Pavilion despite their first MP Caroline Lucas retiring to make way for London Assembly member Sian Berry. They are fighting on a solid left program, promising accelerated moves to tackle climate change, opposition to arms sales to Israel and a Wealth Tax. They have picked up thousands of activists including many parliamentary candidates and councillors from Labour.

Like the Workers Party and the left of Labour independents, the Greens are gaining Muslim voters and look likely to unseat Labour in Bristol Central and gain a second seat.

After the election

So far the Conservatives have fought a disastrous campaign. When Sunak declared the election soaked to the skin in a passing rain storm, it set the tone. A leader who isn’t organised enough to bring an umbrella when it rains, is hardly likely to be an effective Prime Minister. Sunak's visit to the Titanic Museum drew amusement, while his early exit from the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings ceremony in France alienated his core voters.

Starmer, in contrast, has run a technically competent but unexciting campaign. The fear is that Labour will win with a large majority, fail to inspire voters once in government this summer and collapse in the polls. This could provide space for some Frankenstein’s monster of a Reform-Conservative Trump Party to emerge and take power at a future election.

However Corbyn, Greens and other left independents might provide a real opposition. The threat is that as Labour fails, Britain will move in the direction of Trump and Hungary’s Viktor Orban.

[Derek Wall is a former leader of the Green Party of England and Wales and a prominent ecosocialist, academic and writer.]

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