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Why a disillusioned, angry Britain voted for change – POLITICO


Labour aides say NHS funding and mental health services (along with the knock-on effect on welfare claims) jostle at the top of the party’s in-tray — as well as acute prison overcrowding, court backlogs and reoffending; and the sheer amount of time it takes to build anything. Asked to describe the land Labour inherits, a senior party official muttered darkly: “Scorched.”

‘Where’s the change?’

“The major challenge is absolute disillusionment — not just with politics, but with the ability of government to deliver,” Blair’s former Home Secretary David Blunkett, now a member of the House of Lords, told POLITICO. He singled out as an example the Lower Thames Crossing, a road tunnel east of London first proposed in 2009. The planning application alone ran to 350,000 pages and cost £300 million. No decision on the project has yet been made.

Starmer must work ferociously to head this off, says Blunkett. He suggests urgent action to prevent the rise of AI shuttering British industry on a scale last seen in the 1980s, and a “reset” of how overcrowded prisons are built.

Distrust in government is at a record high, according to the British Social Attitudes Survey, which has been measuring public opinion since 1983. Gillian Prior, deputy chief executive at the National Centre for Social Research, which runs the survey, said people’s paramount concerns are about the cost of living and NHS — dissatisfaction with which has risen from 25 percent in 2019 to 52 percent now.

But the levers of government are slow to take effect. Few decisions taken in the coming months will bear fruit until at least 2026, warns Blunkett, meaning Starmer will have to immediately start making the case that his project requires two five-year terms in office. “Unless that’s explained, and there’s a very clear narrative, people will soon turn on the government and say, ‘where’s the change?’”

A new dawn?

“A new dawn has broken, has it not? And it is wonderful,” Tony Blair said after his famous 1997 landslide. In contrast, Starmer’s first speech as prime minister on Friday came from a more disconsolate place. “Our country needs a bigger reset,” he said. “A rediscovery of who we are.”

While his opponent Rishi Sunak spent the six-week campaign promising eye-catching new policies and insisting his “plan is working” — with inflation now returned to 2 percent, and growth slowly ticking up after a minor recession — Starmer spent it managing expectations and refusing to commit new spending.

Labour Leader Keir Starmer swept into Downing Street on Friday with a stunning 174-seat majority, almost matching Tony Blair’s record landslide in 1997. | Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Like 49-day Tory PM Liz Truss before him, Starmer has based his entire strategy on Britain achieving significantly higher economic growth. Yet he knows he faces a far more sluggish economy than Blair did in 1997, with GDP almost flat and a sky-high national debt.

Foreign policy is trickier these days, too; militaristic Russia and economic giant China were comparative minnows in 1997. And back then, Donald Trump was still preoccupied with real estate.

Revolt on the right

Ten years ago this October, Britain elected its first MP from UKIP — the right-wing Euroskeptic party then run by Trump’s friend and ally, Nigel Farage. History has a way of repeating itself. Farage, dubbed “Mr. Brexit” by Trump and now leading a similar insurgent outfit called Reform UK, has just been elected to the same seat, his fledgling party garnering millions of votes across the country.

The original UKIP MP, Tory defector Douglas Carswell, believes his own 2014 victory in Clacton, Essex, was the “first straw in the wind” of voter disenchantment that later brought Brexit, the fall of Labour’s “red wall” seats in the Midlands and north to the Tories in 2019, and even this week’s Labour’s landslide that claimed them back.

“This was traditional blue-collar voters, many of whom might historically have voted for Labour, saying that actually they’ve had enough and wanting to vote for something different,” said Carswell. “What started in Clacton 10 years ago has now become a national phenomenon.

“It’s a totally justified revolt against the conceit of people who’ve got PPE [politics, philosophy and economics] degrees from Oxbridge [Oxford and Cambridge Universities].” He singles out Covid lockdowns, high immigration and the march to net zero climate emissions as examples of elitist policymaking.

Arguably this mistrust of the political class — particularly among conservatives — began under Blair’s New Labour government. Blair’s support for the Iraq war, and for so-called “nanny state” and equality laws (which critics say are flawed) fuelled a sense among his critics of an aloof, we-know-best establishment.

Starmer is no PPE clone, but his lawyerly ambition to set up more independent “commissions” and watchdogs to restore voters’ trust have revived mutterings on the right that he would only give more power to the state machine. Cultural dividing lines are running as hot in Britain as in every other Western nation; Starmer’s pledge to simplify the process for trans people to change their legal gender, once a Tory commitment, has attracted controversy on his own side too.

It was also only five years ago that Starmer persuaded his party to support a second referendum on Brexit, hoping to reverse the original decision. For John Bird, a campaigner and member of the House of Lords who co-founded the Big Issue magazine to help homeless people off Britain’s streets, such procedural battles worsened trust in politicians. “I voted to remain, and then I watched the House of Lords and House of Commons try and overrule the democratic process,” the 78-year-old told POLITICO. “I was absolutely appalled by that.”

‘The poorest paid for the bankers’

Yet many (Bird among them) argue the problem is not a state that’s too powerful, but precisely the opposite — a state which has been hacked to its roots. Years of Tory austerity in the public sector after the 2008 financial crash slashed council and Whitehall budgets but largely failed to cut the U.K.’s debt (now £2.7 trillion). “It was the poorest in society who paid for the fucking bankers’ misuse,” said Bird.

Blunkett argues the problem is that politicians “promise from the center” without asking voters to do their bit. “We weren’t communitarian enough,” he says of Blair’s government. “We weren’t saying — look, there are things we can do as government and there are things that we can enable you to do, but this is a common purpose. You’ve also got to change things.”

This public buy-in will never be needed more than in Labour’s pledge to build 1.5 million homes in five years, including on protected “green belt” land. The appetite is there — tens of thousands of familes are trapped in temporary accommodation, and house prices have never been higher. YouGov polling shows 50 percent of Brits would support a big increase of new housing in their area. But that won’t stop the inevitable avalanche of hostile campaigns from local activists when the first sods are actually turned.

The death of Tory England

As Britain went to the polls on Thursday, Henley-on-Thames — a picture-postcard town in Berkshire — was brimming with candy stripe suits and boater hats. The occasion was the annual Henley Royal Regatta, a world-famous rowing festival seen as a playground for Britain’s rural elite. With its red, white and blue bunting and heritage-listed houses (average asking price, £750,000), this pocket of Tory England has had Conservative MPs for 114 years, among them Boris Johnson. Yet now its MP is a Liberal Democrat.

England’s centrist, pro-European third party, hammered in 2015 by voters furious at its role in a Tory-led coalition government, seized ruthlessly on local, bread-and-butter grievances to bounce back from 15 MPs to more than 70. By targeting separate seats, the Lib Dems and Labour exacted a devastating pincer movement on Conservative heartlands in southern England.

Despite Starmer’s landslide, Labour’s overall vote share was far lower than in 1997 and 2001. Voter turnout was the second-lowest in a century. | Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

And no local issue caused more of a stench in the south of England than sewage — particularly in Henley. Tests undertaken on the river shortly before this week’s regatta found levels of E.coli 27 times higher than acceptable thresholds. Anna Cowell, a member of the Leander Rowing Club, said: “There’s been quite a few vomiting bugs from the water, because there’s no real way to stop the water getting in the boat or getting on your hands.”

England’s Victorian-built sewage network still combines sewage with rainwater runoff, meaning during heavy rain there are two choices — allow the sewage to back up into people’s homes, or to discharge into rivers and the sea. Middle-class voters, in particular, are enraged.

Starmer has promised to put the failing water firms in special measures and block their executive’s bonuses. Time will tell whether that stops voters seeing him as part of an establishment that is quite literally full of shit.

‘Society’s become corrupt’

As if the Labour/Lib Dem pincer movement was not enough, the Conservatives also saw their support hacked away from the right by Nigel Farage. Reform UK drew thousands of disaffected voters at a time to Trump-style rallies on a scale not seen since left-wing Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn. Reform won only four seats under Britain’s first-past-the-post system, but 14.3 percent of the vote — so crucially splitting the Tories’ right-wing support.

“I think society’s become corrupt, greedy,” said one Reform voter, retired crane and forklift truck driver Barry Carter. Sheltering under a market stand in Newark, where he has lived for 57 years, Carter said the money Britain sends to Ukraine should be spent on the NHS instead. “We’re not finished yet after Ukraine — there’s going to be another country wants protecting,” he said. “Is it Finland? Is it Estonia? Is it Latvia?”

With flower baskets on its Tudor and Georgian buildings, Newark is hardly one of the left-behind bricks of Labour’s “red wall” industrial heartland. It ultimately stayed blue on Thursday night, but with a 24-point drop in the Conservative vote share. The main beneficiary was Reform UK.

Reform’s surge was driven almost entirely by record-high immigration. The public debate focused mostly on small boats crossing the Channel illegally, despite the vast majority of net migration being approved through the U.K. visa system. Sunak repeatedly attacked Starmer’s vague pledge to “smash the gangs” which are smuggling people across from France — but failed utterly on his own vow to “stop the boats.”

Dover, Kent, the front line in this struggle, has just elected its first Labour MP since 2010. But many of those on Dover’s sparsely-trodden high street, and in the more trendy town of Deal just up the coast, told POLITICO they would back Reform — pushing the Tories into third place here, and again splitting the right-wing vote. At 4 p.m. in a quarter-full Wetherspoons chain pub, one Reform Voter who refused to give his name complained Labour and the Tories were the “same party.” It’s a message echoed time and time again around the U.K.

Leveling up?

More than 300 miles north, on a Thursday lunchtime inside Hartlepool’s dated 1970 Middleton Grange Shopping Center, the larger chain stores remain open — but other units have the shutters down. The town has received “leveling-up” funding from the government, and scaffolding is dotted about, but local politicians’ messages that Hartlepool’s best days are ahead of it are hard to land.

It is here that, just over three years ago, Boris Johnson was at the peak of his powers. The port town in County Durham had turned blue for the first time since 1964, via a parliamentary by-election. The then-Tory prime minister met an inflatable balloon doppelgänger of himself, hoisted by jubilant supporters, arms aloft in victory. A year into his job as Labour leader, a defeated Keir Starmer pondered whether to quit. Much has changed since then.

With Reform hoovering up thousands of former Tory voters, Hartlepool easily returned to Labour last night — just like dozens of “red wall” towns which had previously lent their votes to Johnson to “level-up” their communities and “get Brexit done” in 2019. But here, too, Starmer still has much to prove.

“Places like Hartlepool are just forgotten about,” said Kaitlyn Maxfield, 24, a student at the Northern School of Art. This is only the second election she’s been able to vote in, yet the former Labour supporter said: “We just feel completely unrepresented by everyone … Do I spoil my ballot and hope for the best?”

The seeds of voter disillusionment have been sown over decades, and are well-rehearsed. | Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images

Then there is the friction between Westminster and the U.K.’s devolved nations. Thursday’s electoral meltdown for Scotland’s ruling Scottish National Party — yet another case of voters savaging an unpopular incumbent — means a second independence referendum now looks far off. Labour is promising more devolved powers in the hope relations will heal. But dissatisfaction with Westminster remains sky-high.

Across the Irish Sea, the republican party Sinn Féin now holds the most Westminster seats in the whole of Northern Ireland — hardly a ringing endorsement of the ruling class. It has predicted people in the region will vote on uniting with the Republic of Ireland in the coming years.

Heir to Blair?

Everywhere there are warning signs for Starmer. Reform finished second to Labour in more than 100 seats — and Farage now promises he is “coming for Labour” next. A glance across Europe shows the right-wing populist surge will be hard to quell.

Starmer’s left flank, too, is exposed. Labour lost a slew of formerly safe seats on Thursday to independents or left-wing Green Party candidates protesting about his position on Gaza. The Labour leader was slow to call for an immediate ceasefire in the region. The anger at some of his pro-Israel remarks has been visceral. Somehow he needs to rebuild trust with those communities.

Starmer is aware none of this will be easy. His election manifesto offered bold vision, but few concrete solutions. His supporters argue that Tony Blair achieved more than was in his 1997 manifesto, and that likewise, that Starmer can under-promise and then over-deliver.

Thus his 5 a.m. victory speech, delivered at a cavernous modern art gallery on the banks of the River Thames, painted the challenge in broad strokes. Starmer invoked only “the sunlight of hope, pale at first but getting stronger through the day.”

“Things can only get better” was Blair’s 1997 campaign anthem. Britain’s voters, in dissonant, cacophonous voice, have told Starmer that is exactly what they want. Now, somehow, he has to deliver it.

Esther Webber reported from Aldershot; Stefan Boscia from Henley; Bethany Dawson from Bristol; Sam Blewett from Newark, and Noah Keate from Bradford and Hartlepool.





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