Peter Ramsay, Philip Cunliffe – Rule of the Void

The UK’s general election result might seem like a restoration of the old pre-2016 political order. A bland technocrat has won a sweeping majority. However Labour’s massive victory is hollow and leaves the state in a weaker position than ever

Peter Ramsay is Professor of Law at the London School of Economics. He is also one of the founding editors of The Northern Star

Philip Cunliffe is Associate Professor of International RelationsUCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction (IRDR). He is also one of the founding editors of The Northern Star

This article originally appeared at The Northern Star

Prime Minister Keir Starmer and his wife Victoria arrive at Number 10 Downing Street upon his appointment.

The election results are a dramatic manifestation of the political void at the heart of the British state. Labour has won a landslide victory after one of the most politically impoverished election campaigns of all time. Labour’s victory, and the scale of that victory, are the result only of the epochal failure of the Conservatives, and the despair, division and fury among their supporters. There is no enthusiasm for Labour’s barely existent political programme. Even before it begins to rule, the new governing party has revealed itself to be mere negativity. Enjoying a huge parliamentary majority but few ideas and little support among the population, the new government will be a giant with feet of clay.

The electoral statistics reveal the degree of disenchantment. Labour’s huge majority was won with a vote share that rose by less than two per cent since its disaster in 2019, and was significantly lower than the share won by Jeremy Corbyn when he lost in 2017. Were it not for the SNP’s collapse in Scotland there would have been barely any gain in the party’s share from 2019 at all. Moreover, Labour’s stagnant vote share is of a significantly lower proportion of the electorate, as turnout fell by more than seven per cent to 60 per cent, the second lowest turnout at a general election since the end of the First World War. This is an election the Tories lost more than Labour won.

Some of the weakness in Labour’s vote might be explained away by tactical voting in constituencies won by the Lib Dems or the Greens, but that does little to disturb the overall picture of negativity. Surveys during the campaign indicated that Labour’s policies were the primary reason for voting Labour for just five per cent of the party’s supporters—overwhelmingly their primary reason was to vote against the Tories. And Labour voters were significantly less enthusiastic about the Labour Party than they had been at previous elections.

It is no surprise that positive support for, let alone loyalty to, the new government is so lacking. Starmer has relied entirely on hostility to the Conservatives and division among their supporters. Labour has offered very little that is different from the previous government and it is quite open about its evasive untrustworthiness. As a result, its electoral mandate is an empty formality.

Brexit may not have been a major issue in the campaign, but the result is the further working out of the political effects of the 2016 rebellion against Third Way Britain. Brexit has exposed the failure of political representation at the heart of the British political system and that exposure is steadily destroying the old political structure. Boris Johnson’s lockdown hypocrisy and the Truss debacle have been the headlines of Tory incompetence, but fundamentally they have been brought down by their failure to deliver on their 2019 mandate to use Brexit to ‘level up’ and to control immigration. The SNP may have disgraced themselves with the deranged gender policy and shady financial dealings, but they could have avoided or survived these failures had the emptiness of their fundamental promise of independence not been exposed by Brexit—independence is a non-starter outside the EU. Labour have now benefited from the collapse of those incumbents at Westminster and Holyrood, but they have not regained the core English and Welsh voters that they lost in 2019, when they repudiated the majority decision to leave the EU, and a high proportion of their remaining voters across the whole UK have little loyalty.

This gulf between its huge parliamentary majority and the weakness of its popular mandate is going to be a primary determinant of what happens next. On the one hand having made few promises, expectations are low. Moreover, while Labour’s authority is very weak among the citizenry, it does have some potential to motivate the state bureaucracies and inspire their repressive police power. On the other hand, faced with the crises that are likely to envelope it, and given its lack of much in the way of strong convictions to unite the party, Labour is likely to suffer internal division that will need to be staved off and managed with hysterical authoritarianism.

One critical advantage it will enjoy is that it faces an equally intellectually exhausted, disorganised and ineffective opposition. If Labour’s win gives expression to the political void this is just as true of the results for the other major gainers from this election. The Liberal Democrats ran a non-campaign, led by a clown, which relied entirely on the tactical anti-Tory vote in middle class Remainia to make their huge gains. The Greens have a programme, but it is one with only a narrow appeal to the professional middle classes. On the right, Reform has benefitted massively from the Tory collapse, but it is not a political party. It is a one-man band led by a man whose Thatcherite politics is of interest to very few of his voters.

Labour in government

Keir Starmer is the void incarnate. His slippery vacuity is the perfect expression of the fact that Labour is the party of the state bureaucracy, of the civil service, the police and its surrounding penumbra of quangos, NGOs, think tanks, universities, professional bodies and so on. As such it is as politically empty as all these interlocking networks.

This alliance of the bureaucracy and the professional middle classes is well named ‘the blob’, because its essential quality is its lack of political backbone. That backbone would be supplied by some determinate relation to the people that the state purports to unite as a nation. However, the state’s bureaucracies and its adjacent networks no longer think of themselves as serving a British people. They think of themselves as part of a cosmopolitan network of right-thinking people in the service of a higher morality, institutionalised in the form of human rights. This absence of national political loyalty is reflected in the legacy beliefs that this blob does retain from the glory days of left neoliberalism and the Third Way. These will be the default to which Labour will return.

There is no alternative to the market

Labour has no answer to the problem of low productivity that bedevils the British economy. It talks growth and investment, but the emphasis is all on stability. And stability means managing the debt and the status quo, exactly what the electorate wants a change from. Labour has promised to crackdown on unauthorised immigration. But even if this occurs (which is not likely given that it will require leaving the ECHR), Labour will almost certainly maintain an economy dependent on high levels of immigration.

Labour promises to build the needed houses and more vaguely to fix the serious decay in the UK’s infrastructure, in energy, transportation, health, education. But the far more authoritative Blair governments never got the houses built and Starmer’s miniscule green investment programme and planned small (real-term) reductions in public spending depend on optimistic growth forecasts and has already been scaled back. Labour will drift with the demands of the market.

Cosmopolitan intersectionalism

The blob’s limited moral drive comes not from a claim to represent the nation but from its misanthropic belief that we need to save humanity from ourselves. The merely national interest is an obstacle to this. Labour has talked a little about the nation in the election but it will remain wedded to the cosmopolitan perspective.

Labour will try to retain the commitment in one form or another to Net Zero with its impossible targets until events force them to retreat. Lammy’s foreign policy document already indicates a commitment to more of the same Global Britain. Protecting people abroad from human rights abuses and evil dictators will remain the perspective even as the forever wars that this perspective has incited continue to fail. Even if Starmer sticks to his oft-repeated promise not to rejoin the EU or the Single Market, Labour will be taking its policy cues from the drift of the global blob. Again Starmer will be driven by events as the unipolar American global order fails.

The state bureaucracy’s and therefore Labour’s understanding of their own legitimacy, of their own right to rule arises from the repudiation of the nation in the name of human rights, protecting purportedly vulnerable groups from hatred and marginalisation is at the core of its sense of self and mission. Labour has been prudent enough not to put these unpopular and divisive commitments into the manifesto, but they have made their intentions plain enough. We would be wise to expect new laws to protect genderism and Islamism – the two most openly reactionary forces in Western society – from criticism.

Technocratic authoritarianism

The global threats to survival and to human rights preoccupy the blob because they are problems that appear to invite technocratic solutions rather than democratic ones. Labour is therefore a firm believer in the expertise of the graduate class from whom it is drawn, and in that class’s right to rule over the citizens on its own terms, whether by nudge, by quango or by citizens’ jury. There will be more outsourcing of political power to unelected bodies like the OBR (to police economic policy decisions), a new Ethics and Integrity Commission (to police MPs conduct). Promised reforms seek to relegitimise both the unelected House of Lords, which they plan to stuff with younger members of the technocratic elite, and the failed devolution regimes whose rule in Scotland and Wales has proved to be a disaster. Labour will openly infantilise citizenship by giving the vote to children. It is committed to more censorship of dissent and more police interference in politics.

The trouble to come

Lacking solutions to both chronic and acute problems thrown up by the UK’s political economy, a Labour government will likely mistake (or at least claim) its large parliamentary majority for a mandate on all the authoritarian parts of its programme.

There is some coherence to such a programme from the elite point of view. Unable to address, let alone solve, the fundamental stagnation and sclerosis of British society it at least makes sense to divide the population around issues of race, religion and other identities because it permits authoritarian control of opposition and dissent on the grounds of protecting the victims of hate. This might at least cohere the wider professional middle class and reinforce its sense of virtue and mission in the face of the “fascist threat” from below that it loves to invoke. The left’s culture war is the essential complement to the preference of big business for open labour markets and low wages.

Nevertheless, its huge governing majority is not only hiding the underlying weakness of the government’s support in the country at large, but also the fractures developing within the left-neoliberal position, which combines adherence to market dictates with victim politics. Labour’s Atlanticism finds itself committed to the cause of the uber-victim of the era of American unipolar order, the Jewish state of Israel. This position has, however, led to an unprecedented breaking of the left with Labour, because the left backs the more consistently cosmopolitan claims of the Muslim victims of the victim state. Having long cultivated sectarian Muslim political cabals in inner cities, Labour now finds itself challenged over its support for Israel’s war on Gaza both by its left-wing supporters and its former Muslim supporters.

This split lost Labour four seats in the north and midlands, and almost lost them several more (including that of frontbencher Wes Streeting), while it prevented Labour from taking at least one seat from the Tories. It may be tempting to think that the wider Labour landslide has seen off this marginal threat. Certainly, the left in the form of George Galloway’s Worker’s Party failed to have much impact (Galloway lost his seat, and they only came close to defeating Labour in one constituency). However, it is likely that the Muslim independents have demonstrated to themselves the potential power of a Muslim voting bloc. With Indian Hindus and Christians increasingly aligning themselves with the Tories, the potential for importing the sectarian politics of the Indian subcontinent into the British political system seems assured.

Probably no less significant is the split between the victim claims made by trans activists and those of feminists and gay rights campaigners. Labour’s commitment to genderism and the extremist position of recognising gender self-identification in law has caused some longstanding and high-profile Labour supporters on the feminist left to oppose the party. The Labour leadership is only too aware of the disasters that the extremist position has inflicted on the SNP, but at the same time the belief in gender identity permeates the party and the wider blob, and it is a significant component of its own sense of mission. If they back off gender extremism, this is only likely to increase pressure to authoritarian stances on questions of racial and religious identity.

Overall, this is a recipe for continuing political decay and fragmentation. It will be a very weak government with weakening support even among an intellectually exhausted and deluded elite, and even less in wider society. The huge majority will make the party hard to discipline. Even if a Labour government gets lucky on the economic front for a while, it will face any number of crises, from the looming bankruptcy of the universities, the collapse of the criminal justice system, crisis in the Eurozone, a Trump presidency in America. It will not handle these crises well and European-style populist rebellions are going to grow while Labour will not be able to turn to the technocratic bureaucracies provided by the EU for support and excuses.

The opposition

For now the political opposition will be the Tories and they are utterly defeated. The oldest political elite has just suffered an unprecedented defeat in both the popular vote and seat share in the House of Commons. The combination of total failure of the Sunak-Hunt leadership of the party and some relative success for Nigel Farage’s Reform will lead to a battle over the future direction of the Tory Party. It is hard to know how this will play out. The party is a small elite network with a very old membership. Much of the state’s elite is now more comfortable with Labour or the Lib Dems. The party will be torn between appealing to the bureaucracy and the professional middle classes, or somehow accommodating or adapting to the populist revolt on its right. It is unlikely to cause Labour much trouble for a while.

Farage has done something equally unprecedented in winning four seats despite first past the post. Nevertheless, Reform did not really come close to overhauling Labour in the Red Wall. Farage is much like Labour in so far as his strength is negative: he is not the Tories. His weakness is that he has previously had big wins (in 2016 and 2019) only to hand it all back to the Tories who then failed. First with UKIP then the Brexit Party and now Reform he has led one pressure group on the Tories after another. But he has no coherent political programme, beyond some vague Thatcherite hand-waving, and there is now barely any Tory party left to pressurise. Worse, Reform is literally a corporation with no internal political structure. It is so apolitical that it even handed its candidate selection over to a company run by Tories who it is now threatening to sue for allegedly stitching them up with some embarrassing candidates. All this points ironically to some accommodation with the Tories. In this respect, Farage will be following in the footsteps of Europe’s other populists and indeed his own previous MO.

Certainly, should crisis hit a Labour government quickly, the right is going to be in a very weak position to take over. Populist rebellions are likely, but the degree to which they can coalesce into an effective political alternative is hard to predict and in any case they cannot solve the underlying problem of the absence of effective political representation.

No way back

We are now living with the consequences of there being no truly sovereigntist party able to make anything, or even propose anything, that would make sense of the Brexit process so that the nation was prepared to weather the storms ahead. Only the tiny Social Democratic Party has anything like a sensible national programme. But theirs is still wrapped up in a self-defeating cultural conservatism (‘Faith, family, flag’) that is out of kilter with the reality of contemporary Britain; and it sticks with the ultimately paralysing commitments to Northern Ireland and NATO.

The globalist Tories squandered their majority won in 2019, and so too will Labour with their win in 2024. The real question is what comes after the voters have turned against both major parties. Like its European neighbours, Britain’s old political structure has failed, but unlike them, Britain’s elites cannot blame the EU. The fragmentation of the British party system and the now absurdly unrepresentative distribution of parliamentary seats will increasingly make PR seem a necessary rationalisation of a defunct electoral system. PR will incite tremendous new pressures on the political parties. It is then that a new nation may emerge to fill the void that rules over us now. The alternative is depoliticization, and the void will consume us all.

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