UK election: Tory downfall is democracy rectifying its mistakes

It also places a singular challenge on the desk of the new prime minister, Keir Starmer.

In Summary
  • For so long in opposition and even during this campaign, Starmer’s party has danced to the populist tune of the government and its media cheerleaders.
  • The challenge for his new administration as it takes power is to recognise that this election is a watershed, a rejection of this catalogue of mistakes.
Former UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
Former UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
Image: UK PARLIAMENT

Democracies are no better than other forms of government at avoiding catastrophic mistakes. But they are much more effective at rectifying them. While the 2024 British general election might have seemed a long time coming, as the country meandered from one failure to the next, the utter scale of defeat for the Conservatives is testament to the ability of a democratic system to reject, reverse and renew.

It also places a singular challenge on the desk of the new prime minister, Keir Starmer. He will be judged by his ability to restore probity to government and address the damage suffered by the country.

It is easy to see this election in the tradition of other big defeats like 1997 or 1979 or 1964. A powerful theme of “time for a change” was at play and the governing party seemed to have run out of steam. It can even be interpreted as sending a powerful message to Rishi Sunak’s Conservative party that voters wanted to inflict punishment for incompetence, economic mismanagement and sleaze.

But this one is more than that.

The now former governing party, returned with a majority of 80 in 2019, has been beaten to within an inch of its life. A generation of politicians long criticised for treating public life with contempt, have been ejected from office and parliament.

Step back, and this election can be seen as democracy rectifying the catalogue of its own glaring mistakes. Since the calamitous Brexit referendum eight years ago, Britain has suffered economic decay and a cost of living crisis (briefly exacerbated by Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng’s disastrous so-called “mini-budget”).

It has endured a government with a lengthy record of rule breaking reflected in the UK falling to its lowest ever ranking in the Global Corruption Index. It has seen dodgy pandemic procurement contracts handed out, party donors appointed to the House of Lords and a sustained attack on its constitution, institutions, and rule of law. Tiresome culture war crusades have divided communities and polluted public life.

Denigration of public services from education to the NHS to the armed forces, crises in housing, the climate and inequality have been left unchallenged. Damage has been done to the country’s international reputation and relations strained with the UK’s closest allies in Europe.

What these errors have in common is that each one sits firmly at the door of 10 Downing Street and its four most recent inhabitants. This election emphatically draws a line under them.

Parties can fall

For so long in opposition and even during this campaign, Starmer’s party has danced to the populist tune of the government and its media cheerleaders. The challenge for his new administration as it takes power is to recognise that this election is a watershed, a rejection of this catalogue of mistakes, and an expectation of political renewal.

The more existential question is whether this election is also a watershed moment that will permanently change the shape of British politics. Could we be witnessing the demise of the Conservative party and the end of its hegemonic position at the centre of public life?

It happened to the previously dominant Liberal party a century ago when it split down the middle and was replaced by a new emerging Labour party. Such a shift is rare, of course, and requires some sort of major disruption.

In the years following the fist world war, Labour’s rise was fuelled by an extension in the franchise so significant that it makes the proposed votes for today’s 1.5 million 16 and 17-year-olds appear trifling. Indeed the Representation of the People acts more than doubled the electorate by giving the vote to women and the 40% of (working-class) men who were also previously disenfranchised.

There is nothing quite so seismic heading Westminster’s way today (though plans for automatic registration could add millions of voters). But the potential for comparison should not be dismissed.

Post-Brexit realignment, realigned

Party identification in the electorate, which has been in decline since the 1960s was turned on its head in 2019 when Boris Johnson’s Tories won a swathe of red wall seats in the Midlands and the north of England. For the first time, Labour voters were wealthier than Conservative. Labour, of course, went down to its worst defeat since 1935. There was talk of a new political cleavage, where class divisions had been replaced by leavers and remainers.


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That this has all been reversed in the space of one parliament demonstrates the incredible fluidity in the electorate today. The more than 70 seats that have gone to the Liberal Democrats show the determination of the electorate to vote tactically to remove Conservatives in spite of an electoral system that has historically kept them in office.

And then there is Reform. Nigel Farage’s rag bag of a party has proved to be the ultimate protest vote for disenchanted Tory voters, attracted to the open acknowledgement that few if any seats could be won but the higher the vote, the harder the beating for the Conservatives.

As it happens, millions more voted Reform than was reflected in their seat share. While there are some leading Tories who would still welcome him into the fold, Farage perhaps overplayed his hand during the campaign making the Conservatives defensive of a rival, hell bent on their destruction. Time will tell if the Conservatives can resist the onslaught but for now the psychodrama of the right will be a political sideshow to the main event: an innocent new government and a refreshed parliament.

Britain’s parliamentary democracy facilitated this catalogue of mistakes which have proved so damaging to the country over recent years. But in this election it has also proved highly effective at beginning the work to rectification. If Starmer gets a moment to catch his breath, he might reflect upon this as the key reason he has been handed such a decisive majority.The Conversation

Stephen Barber, Professor of Global Affairs, University of East London

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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