X Close

Historically low vote share threatens Starmer’s legitimacy

Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. Credit: Getty

July 3, 2024 - 7:00am

The election in 2010 was meant to be a nadir, of sorts, when the combined vote of Labour and the Tories fell to its lowest ebb since 1918 — with Cleggmania inching the Liberal Democrats beyond even the giddy heights of opposition to Iraq.

To many this demonstrated that voters were becoming more “polyamorous” — and that even the toughest “heartland” could be rendered soft. Although the next election saw a slight bump for the “big two”, the collapse of the Lib Dems happened alongside the Greens amassing a million votes, Ukip capturing nearly four million, and the SNP winning almost every seat in Scotland in 2015.

The following election in 2017 was the great exception. Despite the media instructing the public that Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May were useless and not “electable”, the combined vote of the parties they led hit 84%. But that proved a blip, and the old trend soon returned. Indeed, this week’s election, if some pollsters are correct, could outdo 2010, with the combined vote of the two major parties falling to their lowest levels in more than a century.

Unlike in 2010, however, this year’s trend has been driven by non-established parties, specifically the Greens and Reform UK. Independent candidates may not win in many places, but they are set to win a record number of votes nationally.

All of this also raises questions regarding Labour’s mandate to govern. After all, Keir Starmer could be set for a majority in the hundreds while plausibly winning fewer votes than Corbyn seven years ago. One YouGov poll, which put Labour on 36% (equidistant between their 2017 and 2019 showings) even furnished the party with a majority of 244 — the largest enjoyed by a single party in history. The closest comparison would be 1931, when the Tories were the last party to win an overall majority of votes.

One can answer that such a huge majority — larger than anything achieved by Baldwin, Attlee, Thatcher or Blair — is simply a fair reflection of what would be a stunning margin of victory. Westminster, after all, is often a “winner-takes-all” system, and triumphing by double digits over the runner-up will produce strange results. But again, this was designed for a world of two parties and high turnout — neither of which is likely to prevail on Thursday. If Starmer gets anything like the polling predicts, it’s hard to see how a crisis of legitimacy (ironically) doesn’t ensue for the rest of this decade.

Then there is the historic defence of first-past-the-post: that it is a system designed to create majorities and mandates — and that Starmer will be armed to decisively change the country. But how would something like transforming council tax (which I personally support), or amending the Green Belt (which I also support), have buy-in from much of the country off the back of such a result?

We can’t know, in truth, because it would be without precedent. At which point a strange thing could happen: Labour start to pull their punches precisely because their majority is so large. If the opposition were just the Tories, that would be unlikely — but with Farage, and his band of merry men in the Commons, I wouldn’t be so sure.

The historically low vote for the larger parties in 2010 and 2015 changed course in 2017 precisely because those first two occasions failed to put operators in the Commons who could seize a growing profusion of political opportunities. After Thursday, expect a similar moment to occur. Only this time — as the dust settles — there will be far more advocates for “creative destruction” in British politics on both the Left and the Right.


Aaron Bastani is the co-founder of Novara Media, and the author of Fully Automated Luxury Communism. 

AaronBastani

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

31 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Rob N
Rob N
9 days ago

Starmer and Labour terrify but even more terrifying is that the Tories are so pathetic that their destruction is even more important than keeping Labour out.

If Starmer is a real democrat he should restrict his actions due to thus illegitimacy. He won’t and we need to prepare for the end of Britain.

AC Harper
AC Harper
9 days ago
Reply to  Rob N

But Starmer is not a real democrat as Labour (apparently) intend to outsource government to unelected commissions and regulatory bodies.

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
9 days ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Like the Supreme Court, that has already – under the Tories – forbidden any British Government from developing Britain’s fossil fuel capacities.

Which is a judicial decision that any government would find hard to reverse.

Martin M
Martin M
9 days ago

British Governments are formed by the Party that wins most seats in the House of Commons. If a Party has such a majority, the resultant government is “Legitimate”, however much some people might not like it. The alternative is the system that prevails in much of Europe, which I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy (or even on Europe, for that matter).

Peter B
Peter B
9 days ago

Nonsense. This is the way our system works. As approved at the AV referendum in around 2015.
I’m resigned to a huge Labour win. But the bigger the win, the less the chance of Labour being able to blame others when they fail. I’m more concerned about the consitutional damage they may inflict. The road to hell … and they have just so many good intentions and so little experience of running things in practice.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
9 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

Indeed. Those in power always regard their power as legitimate however they achieve it.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
9 days ago

The biggest threat to the government of the Great Obfuscator is the mind-numbing inc
oherence of his own platform:

– We’ll fix the housing crisis whilst doing nothing to limit immigration. Not doable.

– We’ll revive the economy whilst de-carbonising the grid. Not even slightly doable.

– We’ll negotiate a better deal with the EU without accepting free movement. Not doable.

– I’ve decided, after all, that most women don’t have willies, but we’ll punish anyone who says so or who tries to prevent their child from being sterilised.

– We believe in freedom of speech, but don’t be rude about dumb mediaeval superstitions or we’ll put you in jail.

What we’ve just witnessed is the most profoundly dishonest election campaign in our history.

A D Kent
A D Kent
9 days ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

Actually the most dishonest was 2019 – that’s when the entire Establishment focused on something that simply didn’t exist – Labour’s allegedly rife antisemitism.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
9 days ago
Reply to  A D Kent

The downvotes reflect the false nature of your post – the far left is as antisemitic as the far right. Have you ever any Marx?

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
9 days ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

Well said. Stepping back, it is evident that a wholesale crisis of legitimacy has swamped our system – and will wash away political parties like the Conservatives that – impossibly as we shall see – straddle the Great Divide. There are the all powerful Progressive forces – the permanent State, Labour, Lib Dem, Greens who all stand for the imposition of multiculturalism, open borders and Eco/Green madness. They all are extreme identitarian ideologues on race gender and raycist whites and all believe in the EU Empire, socialism, wealth redistribution and the NHS. Against them should be opponents of the above..but – incredibly – there is no political army on the field. Only an unprepared immature Reform stand for wealth creation, the nation state and a coherent response to the extreme progressive ideology. As we know, the Fake Tories were Progressive Quislings and so will be extirpated for their great betrayal tomorrow. I believe a clear majority are hostile to the Progressive ideology so carefully and cynically masked by the mendacious Starmer. We have five short years for a new credible political force on the centre right to be created to address this black hole in party politics and overriding burning intolerable legitimacy crisis.

Peter B
Peter B
9 days ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

The EU doesn’t have the bandwidth to revisit Brexit in any case. Too many of its own problems and increasing fragementation of views. There’s no upside for them.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
9 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

The UK re-joining would bring more income to the EU. They probably wouldn’t refuse that, especially on the re-joining terms they will impose.

Peter B
Peter B
9 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

No one’s talking about rejoining (same/worse terms at increased cost + have to join the Euro would be a really tough sell). This is about changing the current arrangements – what the EU used to call “cherry picking”.

Dylan Blackhurst
Dylan Blackhurst
9 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

I think we should definitely re-join the EU. If only for the comic value of the watching the Remoaners squeal in horror as France under Le Pen pull out, heheheheh!

Andrew Buckley
Andrew Buckley
9 days ago

Probably a landslide victory for “non of the above” if that were an option!

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
9 days ago
Reply to  Andrew Buckley

It’s a fun thought… Would it be possible to implement a “none of the above” option on the ballot? I think it would win most races, most of the time. What would that mean practically? An empty seat? Interesting thought experiment.

Amelia Melkinthorpe
Amelia Melkinthorpe
9 days ago

What “legitimacy”?

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
9 days ago

This is a terrific rebuttal of Bastani by a very articulate youngster.

https://open.substack.com/pub/mattgoodwin/p/the-uniparty-has-nothing-to-offer?r=1fl6hp&utm_medium=ios

D Glover
D Glover
9 days ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

Wow. That is a superb article. Miles better than anything in UnHerd for ages.
I urge everybody to read it.

George Venning
George Venning
9 days ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

That is as bleak as anything I have ever read.
I don’t agree with him but the story he’s telling is an old one.
After the financial crisis, it was obvious that the west was screwing its young people. A political movement arose to address those concerns but, instead of embracing it, the establishment moved to crush it.
15 years on, things are worse than ever for younger people and, since the left failed to break through, young people are willing to give the right a whirl.
I think he’s profoundly mistaken in his belief that Johnson governed as Corbyn might have. And that’s far from the only thing he’s wrong about but I can see how he ends up where he is.

j watson
j watson
9 days ago

‘I mean how could this have happened to us on the Right? Such a terrible Man and such a terrible Labour Party…how on earth? I mean we’ve had 14 years to bury the Centrists and Leftists once and for all. We own most of the media. We even invested in additional media such as Unherd. And yet here we are. I don’t get it. Thank goodness we’ve invested so much time in conspiracies and scapegoat excuses. Otherwise we really would be looking like we hadn’t a clue’

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
9 days ago
Reply to  j watson

Trouble is, your liberal friends don’t have a clue either.

btw conspiracy theories and scapegoats come usually from the liberals – look at the Remoaners and Brexit or the Democrats and Trump.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
9 days ago
Reply to  j watson

You seem to have gone from reasoned critiques from the left, that I often found informative, to a kind of tribal “Yay we’re winning, yah boo sucks to you.” Champagne Socialist does moronism much better.

One reason the Tories will get hammered is because they aren’t right wing. See the link I posted below for what right wing looks like. If you’re expecting anything materially different or intellectually coherent from Starmer you’re going to be disappointed.

As for “we own most of the media.” On what planet?

j watson
j watson
8 days ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

I’m never entirely sure what is meant by the Left these days. It’s also debatable how Left a Starmer Govt might actually be. Furthermore ‘Economic’ Left and ‘Woke’ Left aren’t always great bed-fellows. I’m no great fan of identity politics.
But the main story tmoro is likely to be the end of a 14yr Right wing project. Some folks will contend it was never Right wing, others will say ‘oh yes it was’. And the debate will continue I’m sure.

Andrew R
Andrew R
9 days ago
Reply to  j watson

You don’t get much do you JW must be all that projection. I see you managed to shoehorn in “scapegoat” again.

j watson
j watson
8 days ago
Reply to  Andrew R

Had you in mind AR.

Andrew R
Andrew R
8 days ago
Reply to  j watson

Very kind of you JW.

If a Starmer government gets a 200+ seat majority, will the Left still trot out “The tyranny of the majority”, and claim it has a mandate with c40% of the vote.

j watson
j watson
8 days ago
Reply to  Andrew R

Think 40% they’ll be fairly pleased AR, but yes it’s not a comfortable position and I think Starmer smart enough to recognise some responsibility would come with it.
I suspect though an early push on more devolution and something about HoL. Thus diffusing power and reducing patronage.

Santiago Excilio
Santiago Excilio
9 days ago
Reply to  j watson

How dreary.

j watson
j watson
8 days ago

But you read, and pondered long enough to comment. I’ll take that.

Mark epperson
Mark epperson
9 days ago

Excellent. If the party doesn’t have a 50 percent plus majority of the votes, how can they legitimately set the agenda/laws for the people is an age-old question? The answer is and always has been, that they can’t but they will even if they have to pander and sell out their values/integrity to opposition parties to govern. These opposition parties, then become the majority player even if they only garnered 15% of the vote. If I were king, no election could be certified until one party received over 50% of the vote, no matter how long it takes. Male the people responsible for electing their leaders.