Keir Starmer Already Faces a Real Challenge From the Left

The British Labour Party won a big majority of seats with a puny vote share after the Conservatives self-destructed. But Keir Starmer’s lurch to the right has created a space for Greens and left-wing independents like Jeremy Corbyn to win support.

Newly elected British prime minister Keir Starmer addresses the nation outside 10 Downing Street in London, on July 5, 2024. (Henry Nicholls / AFP via Getty Images)

As the results started coming in from the British general election last night, the Scottish Labour politician Jim Murphy made a telling remark. Murphy, who led the Labour Party to a crushing defeat in Scotland back in 2015, was delighted to see the Scottish National Party (SNP) perform so badly this time: “Not only have they lost votes to Labour directly, but they lost votes to nonvoters. And in politics, it’s much harder to reenergize people who have left and gone to be nonvoters.”

Murphy could hardly conceal his excitement at the thought of people disengaging from electoral politics altogether. His party has now been carried to the heights of power on a tidal wave of apathy. At 60 percent, turnout was down by more than 7 percent from the last election, in 2019. It’s one of the lowest figures on record since Britain adopted universal suffrage.

The absolute number of votes cast for Labour was lower than it was in 2019. If we take account of the fall in turnout, Keir Starmer added less than 2 percent to the party’s 2019 vote share. Labour’s final score, 33.7 percent, was well below the average vote share for Labour under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, let alone the 40 percent it took in 2017. Yet Starmer has won a landslide majority of seats in the House of Commons, thanks to a Conservative meltdown and Britain’s winner-takes-all electoral system.

As the polling expert John Curtice put it, “This looks more like an election the Conservatives have lost than one Labour has won.” The Tory vote share dropped by 20 percent. In 2019, the Brexit Party of Nigel Farage stood down hundreds of candidates to give Boris Johnson a clear path to victory. This time, Farage’s vehicle — now rebranded as Reform UK — set out to damage the Tories and took 14 percent of the vote, driving a wedge through their electoral base.

From day one, this has been the kind of outcome Starmer and his team were hoping for. They never wanted to take office amid a surge of enthusiasm with an ambitious reform program to address Britain’s multifaceted social crisis. Their goal was to make Labour completely inoffensive to all those who benefit from a dysfunctional economic model.

A big majority of seats after a low-energy campaign with a 40 percent abstention rate is close to ideal from their perspective. But it certainly won’t be the launchpad for a reforming government. While the Conservatives richly deserve their moment of humiliation after taking a chainsaw to Britain’s public services over the last fourteen years, the new administration fully intends to maintain their destructive legacy in power.

Outside Left

For those who want something more than a change of personnel at the top, there were several promising results. Having been kicked out of the Labour Party by Starmer, Jeremy Corbyn retained his seat in North London as an independent. A poll shortly before the election suggested that Corbyn was on course for defeat at the hands of the Labour candidate, a private health care entrepreneur called Praful Nargund. In the end, however, he trounced Nargund with a mobilization of supporters that harked back to Labour’s use of mass canvassing in 2017.

Corbyn will be joined in the House of Commons by four other independents who took seats from Labour after running campaigns that highlighted Starmer’s backing for Israeli war crimes in Gaza. Several other pro-Palestinian independents came close to winning, including Leanne Mohamad, who was barely five hundred votes short of unseating Labour’s shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting. It would have been a great achievement for Mohamad to take out Streeting, a self-regarding, oleaginous figure who has broadcasted his desire to accelerate the privatization of the National Health Service, but she should be proud of her performance in any case.

Even Starmer himself faced a challenge in his London constituency from the antiwar campaigner Andrew Feinstein. Coming out of nowhere, Feinstein took a healthy 19 percent of the vote while Starmer’s share dropped sharply, although he was in no danger of being unseated. The Green Party, which has also strongly opposed the attack on Gaza, took nearly 7 percent of the overall vote and won four seats, its best performance to date.

The vote for antiwar and Green candidates suggests the potential for a left-wing movement that combines a domestic reform agenda, both social and ecological, with a foreign policy based on peace, human rights, and climate justice. We already knew from Corbyn’s time as Labour leader that there was widespread support for these ideas in British society. Now we know it’s possible to gain a political foothold outside the framework of the Labour Party, in spite of the British electoral system’s barriers to entry for smaller groups.

A Resistible Rise

On the other hand, Labour took back most of its Scottish seats from the SNP, which had been its most effective challenger over the last decade. The SNP first won those seats in 2015 with a platform that highlighted its opposition to austerity and nuclear weapons. Yet having positioned herself so successfully to the left of Labour, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon began moving toward the center ground in terms of both policy and political style, especially after the Brexit referendum in 2016.

We can trace the origins of the current SNP crisis back to Sturgeon’s time as leader, although the chickens finally came home to roost after first Humza Yousaf and then John Swinney took charge of the party. Labour will no doubt take this as proof that the wider cause of Scottish independence has exhausted itself and things can go back to the way they were before the 2014 referendum. In principle, that complacent attitude should present the SNP with opportunities to regain support from Labour ahead of the next Scottish Parliament election in 2026, although the party’s ability to renew itself after a long period of institutionalization is very much in doubt.

The vote share for Nigel Farage’s Reform UK was not much higher than the UK Independence Party’s result in 2015, but this time the party took four seats, including one for Farage, and racked up a number of second-place finishes. The Reform performance should give the lie to any notion that you can undermine support for anti-immigrant parties by embracing their ideas.

The two major parties have adopted Farage’s position on immigration circa 2015 and spent the election campaign promising to step up deportations. Their only achievement was to legitimize the rhetoric of Farage and his allies. Now that they have a Westminster platform, the Reform MPs will be doing everything they can to scapegoat immigrants and refugees for the social problems that Starmer’s government will leave to fester.

That doesn’t mean they will be successful in doing so. As Starmer becomes prime minister with a big majority of seats, he already faces a left-wing challenge that simply did not exist when Tony Blair ascended to power in 1997. It took several years and three elections for discontent with New Labour to reach a similar level. There is no reason why the hard right should have a monopoly on opposition to Starmerism, if the forces of the British left can learn the right lessons from the experience of the last decade.