That Was the Election That Was

Dave Kellaway looks back at an election campaign that was over before it began


The Tory Collapse

It’s over. It has been over since Johnson’s partygate. The Tories have been finished since Liz Truss’s interest rate-boosting budget. This government lost when people realised they were worse off after 14 years of Tory misrule, incompetence, and corruption. Sunak’s surprise election announcement in Downing Street six weeks ago merely confirmed the obvious. Nobody listened as he was drowned out by the rain and protesters. Election campaigns rarely make much difference; almost everyone decides months before whether to stick with a government or kick it out.

“This government lost when people realised they were worse off after 14 years of Tory misrule, incompetence, and corruption.”

Labour’s Predetermined Victory

This election campaign has been peculiar, with everyone treating Starmer as though he is already prime minister. Pundits mostly speculate on the existential crisis of the Tory party. The main leadership contenders have been absent from the national media campaign, busy marshalling their forces. Most discussions revolve around the Labour programme, how it will be financed, or the shape of the opposition. Sunak talks less about Tory policy proposals and more about exaggerated or false claims about Labour: increasing taxes or rejoining the European community. In desperation, he attacks Starmer for reserving time for his family after 6pm on Fridays and clumsily stumbles into claims of antisemitism. And we thought Theresa May ran a hopeless campaign.

For weeks, the Tories have focussed on the danger of a so-called Labour supermajority. They hope this might scare some Tories back to their side and depress the Labour vote, as people might think they don’t need to vote since victory is assured. It’s like going into a football match and asking the opposing team not to score too many goals. No campaign will succeed if you tell people the other side will win in advance.

With no Tory big beasts wanting to be sullied by a disastrous campaign, journeyman Mel Stride has been wheeled out to defend the cause. Today, on the eve of the vote, he announced Labour would win a landslide and urged people to stop a supermajority. Suella Braverman, in the Telegraph, stated: “One needs to read the writing on the wall: it’s over, and we need to prepare for the reality and frustration of opposition.”

Her argument is that the Tories failed to adopt the same line as the Reform party on migration, haemorrhaging votes to them because they didn’t cut immigration, taxes, or deal with net zero and woke policies. While this could be true, the Tories are also losing votes to the Liberal Democrats in the traditional Blue Wall seats in the South East and West, and to Labour where Brexit voters are returning in the Red Wall seats in the Midlands and the North. Adding those Tory voters who will abstain, it’s clear why some polls predict as few as 100 or fewer seats for the ruling party.

Tactical Voting and the Tory Wipeout

Tactical voting also explains why there will be a Tory wipeout. A nod-and-wink deal between Labour and the Lib Dems sees them not campaigning strongly in each other’s key seats. An Ipsos poll last Wednesday showed nearly one in five voters plan to vote tactically to defeat the Conservatives, more than in any previous election. The first-past-the-post system distorts the scale of Labour’s victory. Starmer may win over 450 seats on 40% of the vote.

“Today we must vote to kick out the Tories. The day after tomorrow, we need to organise resistance to support workers’ interests against Starmer’s partnership with capital.”

Last week, the Evening Standard reported 72% disapproval of the Tories. In Eastbourne, a Lib Dem/Tory marginal, not a single Tory poster was seen. Although political alienation is widespread – few Labour posters were visible in windows.

Despite a generous margin of error, polls indicate a big Labour majority. It’s like bookies paying out on bets weeks before the end of the season on Manchester City winning the premiership. A massive Tory meltdown hasn’t translated to great enthusiasm for Starmer’s Labour. Campaigning on an ultra-moderate manifesto has slightly dipped Labour’s support, though it retains a 20-point lead.

Reporters find little trust in politicians and low expectations that Labour will change much. Young people, in particular, will vote Labour just to get rid of the Tories. Many want to register a protest vote or support a more radical set of policies by voting Green or for a left independent candidate. Starmer’s personal ratings remain negative, way below Blair’s in 1997. We might see a landslide with a lower turnout and fewer pro-Labour votes than in previous elections.

This election highlights the severe limitations of British democracy. Unlike other European democracies, where media rules ensure reasonable coverage for all parties, here the two main parties dominate. The Liberal Democrats resort to extreme photo stunts for attention, while the Greens get minimal coverage. Farage, despite having no more seats than the Greens, commands significant media time.

Media framing influences debate. Print media lines often guide coverage, and only a minority support Labour. Televised debates are framed by broadcasters, with questions often starting from a biased perspective. Immigration debates, for example, start from the supposed threat of small boats, defining migrants as ‘illegal’. There are no questions about Gaza and the support our government and opposition give to the apartheid Israeli state. Parties with substantial business funding have an unfair advantage. The first-past-the-post system makes it difficult for new parties to emerge, narrowing political opinions into a narrow centre and marginalising alternatives.

Both Labour and the Tories have organised few public events with vetted audiences. Labour is particularly wary of Palestine protestors. Hustings are less frequent, with Labour avoiding exposing their candidates to left independents. For instance, in Islington, a health husting was boycotted by the private health entrepreneur Labour put up against Corbyn.

Labour’s task has been easy: repeat Johnson, partygate, Liz Truss, cost of living, contracts for mates, highest taxes for 75 years, nothing works anymore, competent public service, and ask if people are better off now. Starmer’s belief that changing the party as he can change the country is less convincing. The Tories easily expose his dishonesty regarding his relationship with Corbyn and his leadership campaign pledges.

Labour’s manifesto mentions business over fifty times, while inequality is barely mentioned. Their policies aim to improve the NHS or other areas based on a partnership with capital to promote growth, expecting resources to trickle down. Business sees government money coming their way, and the City is relaxed about Labour coming to power. The Financial Times and the Economist have both endorsed Labour.

Daniela Gabor from the University of the West of England analysed in the Guardian how big companies like BlackRock, investing in infrastructure, have embedded staff in various shadow cabinet ministers’ offices. Instead of raising taxes from the rich, Labour wants to mortgage our social wealth to these companies, guaranteeing them no-risk revenue, akin to the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) mark 2, which has already harmed patient care.

Polls suggest 40% of the electorate will not vote for the two main parties, the highest percentage in years. The electorate is more volatile and less tribal, with Farage’s Reform party polling up to 15% or more. Farage’s decision to join the fray has boosted Reform by 4-5 points. On the eve of the election, Labour has warned of a possible Red Wall comeback affecting their vote. Pollsters may not be picking up ‘shy’ Reform voters, similar to the Brexit referendum. Farage could play a role in the right-wing recomposition in Britain, either by a reverse takeover of the Conservatives or developing Reform or some new mash-up.

A rejuvenated Reform party winning up to 15% of the vote but few seats could fuel political resentment, leading to mass street protests and linking up with the neo-fascist right. France has shown how a neo-liberal ‘centrist’ government can feed the growth of the far-right.

This election will see the largest number of votes for candidates to the left of Labour, whether Greens or left and pro-Palestine candidates. Increasing Green MPs is beneficial to the labour and progressive movements, as they support Palestine, fairer taxation, and radical ecological policies. Voting for Galloway’s Workers Party may not have the same impact despite a good position on Palestine.

Challenges for a Socialist Alternative

For socialists, the key question is how left candidates can contribute to building a socialist alternative to Starmer’s Labour. Campaigns supporting Jeremy Corbyn in Islington or Faiza Shaheen in Chingford have galvanised activists. Corbyn may still win, though it’s too close to call. Declaring late meant some Islington voters didn’t realise Jeremy is no longer Labour, and some postal votes were cast by people thinking voting Labour meant voting for Corbyn.

Will the votes help create networks of activists for future resistance to Starmer’s partnership with capital? Will campaigns build new cooperation on the left and sustain local campaigns supporting public sector workers, keeping the NHS public, ending the two-child benefit cap, or maintaining the Palestinian solidarity movement? National networks or movements may emerge.

Positive developments should link up with potential Labour cleavages. Around 25 left Labour MPs will support workers against the government or argue for recognising a Palestinian state now. Debates on nationalising water may arise over a possible Thames Water bailout. We need broad unity in action rather than narrow party-building tactics. Nothing will change unless we build a left in the trade unions that can win sectoral struggles and force a Labour government to enact measures defending working people. Unions were crucial in Corbyn’s rise and fall. Sharon Graham, leader of Unite, has said we should not give Starmer a blank cheque. Recent strikes have involved hundreds of thousands of workers. It’s not inevitable that unions will back Starmer in every circumstance.

The left can still unite across the labour movement and society to win. Diane Abbott was saved as a Labour candidate despite opposition from the Labour apparatus. Local community campaigns, trade union leaders, and cultural figures combined to make it too costly to dump Diane.

Proclaiming the Labour Party dead and calling for people to join a Leninist party is short-sighted, leading to the never-ending division on the British far-left between those working inside and outside the Labour Party. A socialist alternative needs to integrate all activists in existing groups, those still in Labour like Momentum, and thousands of independent activists.

“Proclaiming the Labour Party dead and calling for people to join a Leninist party is short-sighted, leading to the never-ending division on the British far-left between those working inside and outside the Labour Party.”

Today we must vote to kick out the Tories. This may take various forms. In many seats, it means voting Labour and supporting left Labour candidates. In others, it may mean voting Green or for a credible left independent. Tomorrow, we need to organise resistance to support workers’ interests against Starmer’s partnership with capital.

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Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

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