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6 July 2024

Election night should have been jubilant. Why did it feel flat?

Perhaps expectations were too high, or maybe it was Reform’s looming presence.

By Jonn Elledge

I was too young to have been at Labour’s victory party on the South Bank in the hours after its 1997 election win, but in every account I have ever read the sun was shining down as Tony Blair gave his victory speech. The result was not merely a win, but a landslide: the weather came to symbolise the same optimism that had characterised the campaign, and which could be felt, too, in the Britpop soundtrack that accompanied the victory. Eighteen long years of Tory rule had been repudiated at last. A new dawn had broken.

I was there in Washington DC in 2008, when Barack Obama was elected after eight years of George W Bush. The sun wasn’t shining then, it being November, and also night-time; and in retrospect, the presidency that followed provided a fraction of what Obama had promised, and stored up all sorts of problems the world still grapples with today. That night on U Street, though, it felt like change was coming. We’d won.

That is how it should feel today. When the words “Labour landslide” appeared on screen – on a BBC report of an exit poll, rather than in another blog complaining of right-wing newspaper complacency – it felt so overwhelming that for half a second I barely cared that the Tory seat numbers were at the upper end of the predicted range. I didn’t even notice the terrifying 13 seats that looked set to go to Reform. After 14 years that had ranged from inept and misguided to actively malign, the Tories were out of office at last. That new dawn had finally arrived.

As the night wore on, though, the vibes felt off. Although the Reform seat count ended up some way below that upsetting exit poll prediction, its vote share, and the number of seats where it came second, became a consistent and unnerving backbeat. Labour kept missing by inches in seats that had looked entirely winnable. And, by the slimmest of margins, beatable Tories (Richard Holden, Jeremy Hunt, Iain Duncan Smith) somehow kept managing to cling on. This was not the repudiation of 14 years of terrible government that the polls had led us to expect. Keir Starmer is Prime Minister, with a majority to rival Tony Blair’s. Yet somehow, it felt deflating.

What gives? One issue is that expectations were so high. Both Tory vote and seat shares were at the upper end of those suggested by the flurry of MRP predictions in recent days; Labour, meanwhile, came in several points below its predicted vote share, as the party is annoyingly wont to do. This is, let’s not forget, the worst result for the Conservative Party in its entire electoral history, a clear 40 seats and seven percentage points lower than it managed in 1997. But there still is a Tory party. If you’d told CCHQ they’d hang on to 120 seats at the start of the week, and I suspect they’d have taken it like a shot.

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Another issue is that Labour’s majority is what some commentators have called a “sandcastle”, a momentarily impressive structure that can be quickly washed away by the tide. With the rise of Reform balanced by a strong performance by the Greens, a win for Jeremy Corbyn, and a flurry of independent MPs motivated by the party’s position in Gaza, the split in the vote that could deliver the next defeat feels like it may already be there in embryo. In Leicester, Jonathan Ashworth lost his seat: this is not what’s meant to happen to shadow cabinet members when you’re winning by a landslide.

Or consider the result in Chingford and Woodford Green, where Duncan Smith hung on thanks to a split between the official Labour candidate and the more left-wing alternative, rejected by the party just weeks before. Some on each side are blaming the other: neither, upsettingly, are entirely wrong. Labour may need to find ways to work with those to its left, rather than simply assuming they’ve nowhere else to go. That will not, history suggests, be easy.

And then there was the weirdness of much of the TV coverage. Last night saw a change of government, as a party written off less than five years ago swept to a huge majority; the Greens quadrupled the size of their parliamentary partly, the Lib Dems quintupled theirs, and the SNP all but collapsed. So what, according to those hosting the BBC’s election coverage, was the story of the night? Reform. I’m not saying the rise of a new third party is insignificant – but for heaven’s sake, guys, the entire government just changed.

And yet. Britain does have a new Prime Minister. Fourteen years of Tory hegemony are over. And there were plenty of satisfying Tory losses last night. Jacob Rees-Mogg. Lettuce fan Liz Truss, kicked out by a previously safe constituency in true-blue Norfolk thanks to her enormous negative personal vote. The disgraced former defence secretary Liam Fox. Today you can walk from Eastbourne to Ilfracombe without ever leaving Lib Dem territory, while swathes of the Home Counties are now a sea of red – and there’s a very real risk the Tories are about to convince themselves things aren’t that bad. Reform’s rise, meanwhile, may be self-cancelling: how long do you imagine Nigel Farage will be happy sharing the limelight with Lee Anderson?

Labour may struggle to win the next election – but these are volatile times, and that election remains a comfortingly long way away. Until then, it doesn’t matter how narrow some of those Labour victories were, or how easily its sandcastle may be washed away: under our political system, Starmer and his party have an incredible amount of power in their hands to change the country. We must hope that they’re brave enough to use it.

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