Wider Eurasia
UK: Labour Returns to Power

The results of the parliamentary elections in the United Kingdom on July 4, 2024, were not something unexpected, writes Konstantin Khudoley, head of the Department of European Studies at the Faculty of International Relations at St. Petersburg State University.

For many decades, the UK political system has worked like a pendulum, with the two largest parties taking turns in power. There was no doubt that after 14 years of Conservative rule, they would be replaced by Labour, as all the polls showed. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak decided to hold early elections, although he could have remained in power for almost six more months. Apparently, he hoped that some improvements in the economic situation in the first months of 2024 would make it possible for him to soften the defeat of the Conservatives, if not prevent it. It is possible that Sunak also had a personal motive – fears for the outcome of the elections in his own constituency.

Labour captured the general mood of voters by declaring the need for change. However, there were not many concrete promises. Keir Starmer led the Labour Party after a severe defeat in the 2019 parliamentary elections, which had taken place at a time of serious internal crises caused by the attempts of its then-leader Jeremy Corbyn to move it to the left as far as possible. Starmer successfully overcame the extremes and moved the party to a centrist position. Of course, Labour’s election manifesto differed from the Conservative manifesto in most respects, but these were not fundamental differences; rather different emphases were made in the search for ways to solve pressing problems.

The Conservatives suffered one of their most serious defeats. Rishi Sunak himself announced his resignation not only from the post of prime minister, but also as the leader of the party. There is no clear successor in sight yet. Meanwhile, for Conservatives, the question of a leader is one of the most important – the head of the party not only has real influence on shaping its policy; he or she should be a figure who unites and inspires supporters. This is exactly what Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher did, earning them respect even from political rivals. Nowadays, the Tories lack politicians of that calibre. The rapid change of several leaders within a short period of time was a clear symptom of the growing crisis.

Global Alternatives 2024
The United Kingdom’s General Election of 2024: Social-Democratic Triumph or Right Wing Revival?
David Lane
Following fourteen years of Conservative rule, Rishi Sunak’s Conservative Party crashed in the General Election of 4 July 2024. The Conservatives won only 121 seats out of a total of 650 – 250 seats fewer than in the current Parliament – the lowest in more than 200 years of Conservative Party history. The Labour Party won an unprecedented 411 seats. The result has euphorically been welcomed as an ‘historic victory’ for revived social-democracy and a divergent path from right wing ‘populist’ politics in Europe. A closer study of the election results, however, shows that such an interpretation is seriously misplaced.

However, predictions that the Conservatives will fade into the background appear clearly premature. In the new parliament, their status as the official opposition is undeniable. Replacing them with another party in the current two-party system is also unlikely. Such a shift took place 100 years ago, when, after parliamentary reform in 1918, the number of voters from the lower strata of society who sympathized with Labour increased sharply, displacing the Liberals. Currently there is no possibility of such a major shift. The success of the Liberal Democrats is largely due to the fact, that they were and are the most pro-European party. Now that the vast majority of British people consider Brexit a mistake, this has earned them some political dividends, but limited ones, since there can no longer be a way back to the EU. Nostalgia for EU membership will in the near future be a factor limiting the influence of the Reform UK party and its leader Nigel Farage, one of the main ideologists of Brexit. It is unlikely that ideological closeness with Donald Trump will help Farage if the Republican is elected president.

The history of the USA and the UK knows more than one case when ideological and political shifts in the upper strata of society occurred simultaneously. This was the case, for example, under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, as well as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. But this does not mean that the political life of the United Kingdom cannot develop autonomously, and according to its own laws. Unlike the US and continental Europe, the UK has seen a shift not towards right-wing populism, but towards the centre. Therefore, the most logical forecast seems not to be about the collapse of the two-party system or the replacement of one of the parties in it, but about the fragmentation of the British political scene. This trend is present in many Western countries and may even intensify in the medium term. However, the role of small parties in British politics – even if their results improve in subsequent elections – will be limited, unless one of the main parties requires a junior coalition partner.

Foreign policy was not the main issue in these elections. However, Britain’s search for its place in the world continues. London understands that Britain cannot claim the role of a superpower, but it is trying in every possible way to maintain its influence. The UK still has some leverage – it is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a participant in many international organisations, it has nuclear weapons, and occupies one of the leading positions in the fields of science and new technology. British universities still attract young people, including those from the elite in the countries of the “Global South”.

That is why Britain’s role in the world is somewhat grander than its share in world trade and industry.

In practice, there is consensus among all UK political parties on foreign policy issues. Therefore, there will be much less change than in domestic politics. The focus will continue to be on strengthening ties with the US and NATO. Labour plans not only to increase military spending to 2.5% of GDP, but will also persuade other NATO member countries to reach the same level. London’s contribution to the development of NATO’s military structure will undoubtedly continue to increase. Military assistance to Ukraine will continue, with the UK advocating for its admission to NATO.

At the same time, some friction is possible in relations with the United States if Donald Trump becomes the next president. Keir Starmer does not have wide informal connections in US political circles. He has never spoken critically about Trump, but most likely their perceptions of developments in the world will be different. The new Foreign Minister David Lammy has very wide connections in the United States, but mainly among Democrats. For example, he has been acquainted with Barack Obama for almost 20 years. However, under President Donald Trump this will be a disadvantage. Some changes are possible in UK policy towards the EU. The Conservative line for a hard Brexit did not produce results in domestic policy (illegal migration and all other problems remain), nor in foreign policy – the cooling of relations between London and Brussels is obvious. Keir Starmer will most likely try to correct the situation through active dialogue not only with individual states, but also with EU institutions.

The UK will undoubtedly continue to operate globally. The subject of its special attention will be the Pacific and Indian Ocean regions, participation in AUKUS, and development of contacts with India and other states of the “Global South”. Labour is unlikely to seek to aggravate relations with China. It will be very difficult for Starmer to define a policy regarding the conflict in the Middle East. In October 2022, he supported Israel, but then, due to strong pro-Palestinian sympathies among Labour supporters, he changed his position, not even ruling out the possibility of recognising Palestinian statehood. Among global problems, the main emphasis will be on climate change.

No changes are expected in Russian-British relations. They are now at their lowest point in many years. In the ongoing confrontation between Russia and the West, London will continue to occupy one of the toughest positions.

Global Alternatives 2024
The UK General Election 2024: ‘Change’ or More of the Same?
David Lane
The UK may have a change of political leadership under Labour but there will be no significant shift in political direction, David Lane writes.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.