Picture credit: OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images
Artillery Row

The schadenfreude election

The Labour landslide is a clarifying moment, which will be good for British political debate

My first political memory, at the age of five, was the 1997 election. I couldn’t tell you much of anything about it, from policies to candidates most of the details failed to register on my toddler brain. But I remember, quite vividly, my parents acting differently — animated, charged with energy. And not just them. People were happy, they were excited, there was an atmosphere of energy and optimism. It’s all pure cliché now, but it’s also a common experience, a moment of political hope that now feels utterly alien.

No, it’s safe to say that despite the Labour landslide, this is no 1997 moment. This election isn’t about Labour, it’s about the Tories. After 14 years of lies, spin, corruption, scandal, austerity, open borders, rising social disorder, lockdown, social breakdown and endless, stupid internal fights, the awful edifice that is the Conservative government is finally — finally — falling in on itself, in spectacular fashion. 

It’s not hope, that I and millions of others who didn’t vote for the government yesterday felt, it was relief — relief at finally being able to vent 14 years of pent up anger, and relief at not having to wake up to another Conservative leader lying to us. This is the schadenfreude election. If 1997 was Love Actually, 2024 is The Purge, in which voters, for a single bloody day, were finally able to let out all their suppressed resentments.

My own feelings were more on the relief side of the ledger than that of anger. I have little confidence, unfortunately, in the coming Labour government, though I hope to be proved wrong. It may, as many have suggested in the pages of The Critic, prove a destructive force, unleashing chaos on our constitution, and worsening social decay. But, at least right now, I feel extremely sanguine about that possibility. 

I of course have never been a Tory, so feel little sentiment for a failed party of the right whose embrace of an open border, free market worldview has had such predictably horrific results for the country. I’m not much more convinced by a party of the left more concerned with “diversity” than class, and whose economic plans allegedly include selling the nation to Blackrock. But at the very least it may take more honest ownership of its own policies and beliefs than did the Janus-faced party of Rishi Sunak, that boasted of its “hostile environment” whilst handing out millions of visas. 

But what gives me great consolation is the scale of the Tory defeat. It has proved, after years of arrogant denials, that there is a price to decline, a political cost for decadence, failure and betrayal. It has taken a long time, but the numbers involved — a loss of 251 seats at the time of writing — prove that far more than ordinary electoral defeat awaits parties that betray voters. 

For over a decade the Tories have acted as a fog machine, obscuring the problems of the country

For this reason I’m uninterested in arguments about Labour being given a blank cheque. If they are even half way intelligent and self-critical, they will understand that they have won with a lower level of support that the one they lost with in 2017 and realise their vulnerability. If they try and cash the cheque recklessly, they will be digging their own grave, long term. If 14 years of failure can be punished on the scale we have just seen, then Labour will either have to answer popular anger, or fall to it in the same way. 

For over a decade the Tories have acted as a fog machine, obscuring the problems of the country, and the profound concerns of millions of voters about crime, social decay and mass migration. Saying one thing and doing another, striding around in a populist skin suit — nobody has been worse for socially conservative voters than the party that claimed to speak for them. A Labour Party promises a marvellous degree of clarity. The bitterness of exile will force the Tories to decide who they are, Labour will have to consciously own or reject the open borders model they have inherited, and Nigel Farage, along with three other Reform MPs will be in parliament, holding everyone’s feet to the fire.

It will be a better and more honest political landscape, one rife with opportunity for new thinking, and insurgent political movements, both within and without the current major parties. Labour may well extend the worst tendencies of Blair’s constitutional reforms, but this too would be but a crystallisation of a process already long underway and unchallenged by the outgoing Conservative government. Moreover, constitutional conservatives have serious challenges to answer. 

One thing that was brutally uncovered by this election was the irrationalities and inadequacies of our current democratic system. First Past the Post worked well in an age of mass party membership, and horse races between two broad-based parties with clearly defined differences and areas of agreement. Britain is vastly more fragmented now, and millions of votes, and voices, go ignored. The Green Party received a share of seats a seventh as small as its overall vote share. Reform received a fourteen times smaller share of the seats relative to its vote share, making it the least represented voting bloc in the country. 

This democratic deficit is reflected at a local level, with many British councils pushed into bankruptcy because central government inflicts costs and cuts on local government, whilst denying it the ability to raise taxes or borrow money, even for vital investment in growth, innovation and infrastructure. The gains by Lib Dems, Greens and Reform in this election are a sign of local as well as national frustration. 

Apart from a generalised loss of accountability and representation, democracy is also breaking down as a force capable of long term planning and strategic thinking. Our defences have been run down and diplomatic relationships have withered during a period of introspection and incoherence. More seriously still, energy security and supply chains have been entirely neglected by governments unwilling to intervene in an economy ever more exposed to global competition and instability. 

At the same time, an ageing population, collapsing birth rate and exploding pension, health and social care burden threaten the entire edifice of the welfare state, and a combination of high migration and low productivity have only worsened the problem.

Labour may very well worsen these problems with their constitutional tinkering — indeed I think proposals for an elected Lords will do just that — but action, even seriously miscalculated action, is vastly superior to ongoing stasis and silence on these questions. It is pointless to demonstrate flaws in Labour changes when the current system is no longer working. Conservatives, populists and post liberals alike will be forced to do what many have thus far failed to do — come up with coherent solutions, rather than oppositional rhetoric. 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover