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10 July 2024

In praise of British politics

We are fortunate in this country that the transfer of power is so calm and dignified.

By Hannah Barnes

I’ve felt uncharacteristically optimistic since the election. Thursday 4 July marked an extraordinary moment in British political history: a Labour landslide; the Conservatives’ worst electoral defeat in history; the Liberal Democrats’ best parliamentary performance. But above all, this general election reminded me of how proud we should be of our politics, and how fortunate we are to live in a country where the transfer of power is calm, respectful and dignified.

Our parliamentarians are, on the whole, decent people. And we don’t say or acknowledge it often enough, particularly in the media. The large majority stand for public office because they want to serve the country; they believe they can make a difference for the better. That we might disagree on how best to achieve that is a given. But it doesn’t negate the good intentions. Deep down we know this. It’s what explains why, when our politicians fail to live up to the standard we expect – as they did so egregiously with partygate, or gambling on the date of the election – they are punished. It is because the country was so outraged and fed up with a Conservative Party that repeatedly failed to abide by the rules that the electorate abandoned it in their millions.

But what we saw and heard repeatedly in the early hours of 5 July, and afterwards on social media, were displays of honesty, humility and integrity. The name-calling and shouting of the election campaign were gone. The public’s choice was accepted. And in constituency after constituency, politicians put the public first. In Portsmouth North, Penny Mordaunt promised to do everything she could to help Labour’s Amanda Martin, to whom she lost the seat she’d held for 14 years by fewer than a thousand votes. Within minutes of the Conservative Kate Kniveton losing her seat to Labour’s Jacob Collier, she had messaged Jess Phillips to ask her to carry on her work on the family court: “Not my party, but that ­– my friends – is what a decent representative would do,” Phillips said afterwards. The former security minister Tom Tugendhat wrote, “Good luck, my friend,” upon hearing that Dan Jarvis would be taking over the role in a Labour government. “Some things are more important than politics,” he said, alongside a picture of them serving together in Afghanistan.

This display of public service went all the way to the top. Upon leaving No 10, Rishi Sunak not only took responsibility for his party’s loss, but also for the anger that his government had provoked in the country. He did not seek to blame others. Keir Starmer is, he said, “a decent, public-spirited man, who I respect”. There is something deeply emotional and powerful about a former prime minister wishing his successor well, and truly meaning it. We have a political system we can be proud of. Yes, at times, a small number of politicians try to exploit it. But this election shows they are penalised when they do.

I’ve been reminded in recent days of the slogan “Never kissed a Tory”. The phrase, a staple of Pride celebrations for over a decade, originated in LGBT Labour. It was meant purely as a bit of fun and a way to flog a few T-shirts. But others have taken it more seriously – and literally. I’ve spoken to plenty of Gen Z-ers and even millennials who baulk at the idea that you could even be friends – let alone be intimate! – with someone who doesn’t agree with you on absolutely everything. This has always struck me as absurd, intolerant and infantile. It’s refreshing to see our political class reject tribalism, rather than embrace it, as has happened too often in recent years. We now have a Labour prime minister who has not only kissed a Tory, but is “not ashamed about it” either.

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“I am not a tribal politician,” Starmer declared at his first prime ministerial press conference. We have waited a long time to not just hear these words, but to see them acted upon. Within days of taking power, Starmer had visited the UK’s nations and held a meeting with England’s metro mayors – including the one remaining Conservative, Tees Valley’s Ben Houchen. The Prime Minister is right when he says “there’s no monopoly on good ideas”. For those who are motivated by doing best for the people they serve, his “door is open”. We have seen the same sentiment apply in his appointment of ministers such as Patrick Vallance and James Timpson. This, one hopes, is a government of talent, not political favour.

Could this be a new era of a more refined politics? A decent Labour government, a newly revived Liberal Democrat party that has pledged to provide “constructive opposition” and, perhaps, contrite Conservatives seeking to learn from the past? We can but hope.

A civilised, peaceful transfer of power is not something to be taken for granted. Who would envy our French neighbours or our American allies, where the vanity of leaders who do not want to relinquish power has seen them plunge their nations into chaos and uncertainty? We are lucky, as the former chancellor Jeremy Hunt said, to live in a country where decisions over who holds power “are made not by bombs or bullets, but by thousands of ordinary citizens peacefully placing crosses in boxes on bits of paper”. We are also lucky to live in a country where politicians can see past their narrow allegiances and do what is right for the sake of its citizens. And that, Hunt rightly says, is “the magic of democracy”.

[See also: The SNP’s uncivil war]

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This article appears in the 10 Jul 2024 issue of the New Statesman, All Change