Keir Starmer meets King Charles

By P.K.Balachandran

Colombo, July 6:

The Conservative Party’s 14-year reign come to an end on Friday with a defeat not seen since 1832. The Conservatives won just 121 seats, which is the worst result in the party’s 200-year history. The Labour Party stormed into the government winning 412 seats out of the 650 up for grabs, just six short of its highest-ever total in its history.

Many reasons are given for the crushing defeat of the Rishi Sunak-led Conservatives. But their decline could be broadly attributed to the problems they created for themselves by walking out of the European Union-a move known as Brexit in January 2020.

There was a lesson from the polls for the victorious Labour party also. Though it swept the polls, Labour lost in constituencies with a substantial population of Muslims and liberals due to its hostile stand on Gaza.

Contentious Divorce

The divorce from the EU in 2020 proved to be contentious in British politics even after it was done and dusted. Brexit created instability in the Conservative government.

Prime Minister Theresa May gave way to Boris Johnson, who in turn gave way to Liz Truss. After only 49 days in office, Truss gave way to Rishi Sunak as these PMs struggled to stall economic decline.

Liz Cookman, writing in Foreign Policy in 2023 about life in England after Brexit, said that families stockpiled blankets to ward off the cold as they sat shivering in their homes with no heating. Long lines of people, who could not afford to feed their children, formed at the local food bank.

Britain, she said, was a quagmire of misery. Most of the shops closed at 4 p.m. and didn’t even bother opening three or four days a week. There was an egg shortage, a potato shortage. Poverty and inequality were rising.

“Chief among all the culprits is the destructive effect of Brexit and bad governance,” Cookman pronounced. Britain became the world’s worst-performing big economy in 2023 according to the IMF.

Brexit stifled imports and exports. It contributed to a labour shortage of about 330,000. There was a loss of output to the tune of US$ 124 billion.

Brexit prompted finance professionals to relocate to Paris and elsewhere in Europe. FDI in the UK dropped to 1.7% in 2021. 

Scotland, which has been in a union with England since 1707, began to pursue a second independence referendum: 62% of Scottish voters wanted to remain in the European Union.

In the 2016 referendum on Brexit, 52%  had voted for exiting the EU. But in May 2024, 55% thought that it was wrong to have left the EU.

Reducing illegal immigration was a key part of the Conservative manifesto. But none of the promised measures was implemented. The COVID pandemic was mismanaged and casualties soared.

UK’s National Health Service (NHS) deteriorated significantly since the Tories took power in 2010. There remained a significant backlog for patients needing treatment for cancer, heart and kidney diseases. Many patients had to go abroad for treatment.

Critics argued that the government’s policies disproportionately favoured the wealthy. The enormous  wealth of PM Rishi Sunak and his wife Akshata Murthy stood in contrast to the penury of the average Briton.

Following the US lead in foreign policy, the Sunak government continued to support Ukraine with weapons and training and failed to call for an immediate cease-fire in Israel’s war on Gaza where a massacre was on.

What will Labour’s Policies Be?

This is a million-dollar question. Labour victories, especially landslides, have been rarities in British politics, which has been dominated by the Conservative Party since World War II. Throughout its 120 years, Labour has been in power for only a little over 30 of them.

Labour is traditionally seen as being Left-of-Centre party. But like Tony Blair, the Prime Minister-to-be, Keir Starmer, is more Centre than Left. He has vowed to control budgetary spending. He has talked tough on immigration and social security. He appeals to conservative older voters as he is quite a flag-waving nationalist.

As for his relations with the US, he has said that he will work with whoever wins the Presidency in November.

On defence, Starmer has mirrored the Conservative promise to raise military spending to 2.5% of the GDP. NATO had recommended a 2% target.

Starmer has made it clear he will work with whoever wins the US Presidency in November.

On China, the party is likely to continue the policy of  criticizing Beijing’s human rights record while recognizing that UK’s economy will collapse without trade with China.

Policy on Israel and Gaza

Speaking to UK radio station LBC in October 2023, Keir Starmer said that Israel “has the right” to withhold power and water from Palestinian civilians in Gaza.

The comment caused outrage among many left-wing and Muslim voters, leading to furious protests outside the constituency offices of several Labour MPs. The anger was compounded after the party refused to back a Scottish National Party (SNP) motion calling for an immediate ceasefire in Israel and Gaza.

However, Labour did pass its own similar motion shortly afterwards.

The party lost several seats after a strong showing from pro-Palestinian independent candidates, in a sign of anger towards Labour’s position on Israel’s war in Gaza.

Five independent candidates who have been vocal in their support for Gaza won, while a surge in votes for independents elsewhere denied Labour a victory in areas they were expected to win, CNN reports.

In Leicester South, Labour’s shadow cabinet member Jonathan Ashworth lost his seat by 979 votes to Shockat Adam, an independent candidate who made his support for Gaza a key part of his electoral pledge to voters.

“This is for Gaza,” Adam declared in his victory speech.

Many of the seats where Labour lost votes over its position on Gaza have sizable Muslim populations. According to the 2021 census, the populations of Leicester, Birmingham, Ilford and Blackburn are all more than 20% Muslim.

In Islington North, Corbyn was re-elected to the seat he has held since 1983 – but this time as an independent, rather than for Labour. Corbyn won 49.2% of the vote, while the Labour candidate came in second with 34.4%.

Corbyn said the voters of Islington North were “looking for a government that on the world stage will search for peace, not war, and not allow the terrible conditions to go on that are happening in Gaza at the present time.”

In Blackburn, Labour incumbent Kate Hollern – who won a majority of 18,304 at the 2019 general election – lost by just 132 votes to independent candidate Adnan Hussain.

In Dewsbury and Batley, the independent Iqbal Mohamed also defeated Labour incumbent Heather Iqbal. And in Birmingham Perry Barr, independent Ayoub Khan defeated Labour incumbent Khalid Mahmood by 507 votes.