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  1. Editor’s Note
10 July 2024

The Tory collapse was a night to remember

Yet these are not progressive new times.

By Jason Cowley

At the New Statesman election night party, as we waited for the exit poll at 10pm, Andrew Marr  announced in his opening remarks that the 2024 general election would be “remembered for a hundred years”. What will not be forgotten – any time soon, for sure – is what happened to the Conservative Party, which now has only 121 seats in parliament, its worst defeat in its history, and after having won a landslide at the 2019 election on the promise of a new cross-class, pro-Brexit realignment of British politics. It never came close to happening. Levelling up – forget it. Reduced immigration and tight border controls – forget it. Buccaneering Global Britain – forget it. A cascade of free trade deals, as David Davis used to boast – forget it. By the end of the campaign, Rishi Sunak was reduced to promising unfunded tax cuts and warning voters not to “surrender” to Labour. No one was listening to him. His desolate, arid form of conservatism is out of time, and he was out of luck. More than defeated, he was humiliated. He called a surprise summer election, standing in torrential rain outside 10 Downing Street, and then orchestrated a dismal six-week campaign, characterised by gaffes, undermined by cynicism. At least he departed with grace, his final speech as prime minister being suitably contrite.


As well as the Conservatives, the SNP must show more humility. The party was routed in Scotland, losing 39 seats; seven of its nine seats are now the most marginal in Scotland. During the campaign First Minister John Swinney, as unconvincing now as he was when leader of the party first time around in 2000-04, repeated the tired formulation that a majority of seats for the SNP at the election would in effect be a mandate for a second independence referendum. The voters thought otherwise. The SNP presents as a party-state: it believes its interests and those of the Scottish people are coterminous. That was always a delusion, and the independence movement has fragmented across three parties. The intellectual energy and democratic flourishing – the writer Gerry Hassan spoke back then of “an independence of the mind” – of the 2014 IndyRef campaign that so fascinated the New Statesman has curdled into something much darker and resentful. One-party rule is bad for democracy and the SNP is tired and complacent. The taint of corruption lingers. It was striking that Nicola Sturgeon, a pundit on ITV’s election night programme, referred to the SNP as “they”, as if she too wishes to disown what the party and movement have become. The unity that made the SNP such a formidable election-winning machine under Sturgeon and, before her, Alex Salmond is no more. Labour’s next challenge will be to win control of the Scottish Parliament in 2026.


During the campaign I chaired a hustings in the constituency of Hertford and Stortford, where I live on the Essex-Hertfordshire borderlands. For decades it was an ultra-safe Conservative seat. The MP, Julie Marson – known locally, I found out at the hustings, as “Julie Margate”, presumably because she lives in Kent – was a stooge of Boris Johnson. Friends and family of mine who had written to her over the years about issues of local concern never received the courtesy of a reply. It was no surprise then when she declined to appear at our hustings. The other candidates were engaged and well informed, representing Labour, the Liberal Democrats, Green and Reform. We discussed the environment, housing, transport, the polluted Stort and Lea rivers, the common good, and took sharp questions from the audience. When told Marson would not attend, I wrote to her to ask if she would reconsider. She did not reply. Of course she did not reply. In the event, she lost to Labour’s 24-year-old Josh Dean, who overturned a Conservative majority of more than 17,000 – another brick in the Tory wall removed as the whole house came tumbling down. I smiled when that result came through.

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It was not all good news for Labour on election night. I was sorry to see Heather Iqbal lose in Dewsbury and Batley to an independent candidate, Iqbal Mohamed, who believes “our democracy has been hijacked by a corrupt, racist, brutal, apartheid- and genocide-supporting elite”. Will that be his message as people ask about bin collection and mental health services at the weekly constituency surgery? Heather, who used to work with Rachel Reeves, is one of the nicest and smartest people I have met in politics, but her campaign was destabilised by sectarianism and the forces of opposition unlocked by the Israel-Gaza war. Several female Labour candidates endured brutal campaigns as independents and George Galloway’s Workers Party mobilised against them. Jess Phillips, the MP for Birmingham Yardley, in her diary on page 13 describes the abuse and harassment she experienced. These are not progressive new times. Ethno-religious conflict seethes in the old post-industrial heartlands. The country is restive.


And yet, Britain looks more stable than it did before the election was called. Labour has a strong majority of 172 in the Commons and a mandate for far-reaching social democratic change in the country. The SNP has been defeated and the unity of the kingdom will not be threatened again by a secessionist referendum for a long while. This was an extraordinary general election, in so many ways. The British people heard Rishi Sunak’s stridently delivered warnings about Labour and ignored them. Now he’s gone. Plus, Liz Truss lost her seat. Rees-Mogg lost his seat. Julie Margate lost her seat. All changed, changed utterly.

[See also: Why foreign affairs will define the Starmer era]

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