UK election – big change yes, real change maybe?

London traffic at night with Big Ben in the background.

The UK general election campaign is now in its last few days. Obviously the results will make a big difference to the future of the country. The big patterns are pretty clear now.

The headline, of course, is that Labour’s locked on to win with a majority from big to huge. The polls are very consistent, and have been for a long time. That’ll make things better than they have been; but probably not as good as they need to be. More interesting is what’s happening elsewhere, which we’ll get to in a moment.

Battle of the dinosaurs

Getting the Conservatives out of power has, for years, been the bottleneck we needed to move through. Their priorities have been clearly at odds with the interests of the public: backward-looking, controlling, trying to preserve a divided society with themselves at the top and pushing the majority down. In our system as it currently is, the only way to replace them is with a Labour government, so that’s the step.

Under Keir Starmer, Labour has turned into the continuity establishment party, with the strategy of attracting previous Conservative voters and looking palatable to the traditional media, and being willing to alienate previous Labour supporters to do it. That’s frustrating to those of us who would want Labour to take bold progressive positions and hold to them. But as the Conservatives’ popularity has plummeted — aided by an atrocious campaign and a useless leader, highlighting that they’re an exhausted movement with nothing of substance to offer — Labour’s approach has indeed made it a landing zone for the disaffected.

Starmer is not a popular figure. He has attracted criticism for his authoritarian approach to running the party (particularly in regard to the left and minority groups), his response to Gaza, and his frequent abandonment of earlier promises. He might not be a good prime minister. On the other hand, logic points out that the bar of the last few incumbents is pretty low, and better is better.

Rustling in the undergrowth

I think the most interesting thing about this election is who comes second.

The Liberal Democrats have a chance of achieving that and becoming the official opposition. It’s by no means easy, but some projections suggest it’s possible because the Conservatives are doing so badly, Reform is splitting the Con vote, and the Lib Dems themselves are polling well.

A Lib Dem opposition would fundamentally change the dynamic in parliament, overturning the Con-Lab set-up that’s existed for a very long time. Imagine Labour’s centre to centre-right facing the LDs’ centre left: it would be more of a constructive European model, pulling the government in a socially progressive direction rather than wasting time in childish sniping. It would also consign the Conservatives to the status of a minority party, making it harder for them to return. Making this happen will need a lot of tactical voting for LD, mainly in southern England, and to reduce the Conservative share everywhere.

The Green Party is set to break through in England and Wales. Having had one seat for years, they have good chances to take four — and come second in many, setting them up as future contenders. (So please consider supporting them in Brighton Pavilion, Bristol Central, N Hertfordshire, and Waveney Valley – with Isle of Wight East as a possible bonus.) A vocal Green bloc in parliament could make a big difference to debates, as outgoing MP Caroline Lucas has shown.

Another factor is the number of independents we’ll end up with. Polls are not good at factoring this in. But Labour has driven significant numbers away with recent actions (dismissing candidates it doesn’t like, and alienating communities over Gaza), and that may well manifest in a sizeable block of progressive Ind. If so, it’ll be interesting to see whether that evolves into some sort of group.

Reform is a pebble thrown into the pond; or through the window. It offers the kind of simple answers some people want to hear, especially those with old, ingrained attitudes. It’s draining Conservative votes away, while Labour drains them in another direction. Some projections show Reform getting half a dozen seats, while earlier it was 0-2. We’ll see whether the vote share holds up and converts. It’s not great to have voices like that in parliament, but it is democratic, and it’ll let people see them clearly.

Concluding and looking forward

However the detail turns out, the very blue map of 2019 results is going away, to be replaced by a better picture of 2020s Britain. After the culture shock and celebration, the next step will be to push for actual progress.

Labour has adopted the simple slogan ‘Change’ for its election campaign. There’s certainly going to be a massive shuffling of deckchairs. And it wouldn’t be a bad thing to have a pragmatic caretaker for a while, tidying the mess and starting to turn the big boat, similar to what happened in the US. But quite quickly people will want to see that real change they were promised.

The new government will face a lot of challenges. There are many we know about, as well as those that might come out of the blue. Crumbling concrete in schools and hospitals, for instance; sewage in rivers and seas; this coming winter’s energy crisis (with bills set to rise again); the cost of living crisis generally; as well as difficult international challenges like Ukraine, Gaza and potentially the US post-election.

Labour will probably also face internal challenges. Its number of MPs is going to multiply by around two and a half – 200 to 300 new faces, many of whom will be younger or with attitudes different from the leadership. That’ll bring pressure to be more progressive, and resistance to it. Also, in such a big pool factions will rise to the surface, perhaps distracting from important issues.

Other parties won’t be immune to cracks and realignments. The Conservatives will need a new leader, and whichever MPs are left will set the tone for that; infighting is nigh-inevitable. I suspect whatever Reform MPs are elected will not do well in the light of higher publicity. And of course there’ll be a general human period of things settling into a new shape after a long time.

Let’s hope the results are good. And that making things better is about to become easier.


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