General Election 2024

The anti-Tory vote won

Only 35 per cent voted Labour—yet the party won a landslide. Voters were united in punishing the Conservative party

July 05, 2024
Image: PA Images / Alamy.
Image: PA Images / Alamy.

One of the hazards—or, if you prefer, joys—of democracy is that when politicians ask one question, voters sometimes choose to answer another. Six weeks ago, Rishi Sunak asked us: who do you want to govern Britain? Millions decided that the question they preferred was: why do you want to get rid of the Tories?

Their various answers—taxes, prices, the NHS, housing, immigration, Europe, climate change etc—led them to different destinations: Labour, Reform, Liberal Democrat or Green. All of them got part of what they wanted. The Tories have been vanquished. But barely one voter in three got all they wanted. Just 35 per cent voted Labour. That is the smallest share of the Britain-wide vote ever obtained by any party winning an outright majority, however small. It must be one of the weirdest landslides that any mature democracy has ever served up.

Before my Labour friends lynch me for raining on Keir Starmer’s parade, I should add immediately that his triumph would not have been remotely possible without the changes he has made to his party. Five years ago, Boris Johnson built his victory on the fear of Jeremy Corbyn becoming prime minister. By detoxifying Labour, Starmer has unlocked the handcuffs that tied millions of reluctant voters to the Conservatives. Yesterday they used their freedom to punish the Tories, knowing that whichever alternative they choose, today would launch a pragmatic government led by an experienced public servant.

However, to explain the scale of Labour’s victory, we need to dig into the numbers. Labour’s majority this time is close to that enjoyed by Tony Blair in 1997. Yet its 35 per cent share yesterday was nine points lower than Blair’s 44 per cent—and six points lower than under Corbyn in 2017.

The most dramatic result of the night illustrates what happened. In South West Norfolk, Liz Truss was defeated by Labour’s Terry Jermy. Socialism sweeps the Fens? Not exactly. Jermy won just 26.7 per cent of the vote. But in a crowded field, first-past-the-post does odd things. Truss, with 25.3 per cent, was followed closely by Reform’s Toby McKenzie, on 22.5 per cent. Had just one in 10 Reform voters backed Truss, she would have held her seat.

Sunak, then, was right to say that, by taking votes from the Tories, they would help Labour win seat after seat. Sunak’s problem was that these voters, having lost their fear of a Starmer government, had no reason to hold back on their animus towards the Conservatives.

So, rather than saying the electorate divided 65-35 per cent against Labour, the larger truth—both arithmetically and politically—is that the electorate divided 75-25 per cent against the Tories. And that 75 per cent vote has given us a parliament in which 80 per cent of British MPs are non-Conservative. Put that way, the Tory versus anti-Tory balance is only slightly out of kilter. In as far as Starmer seeks to govern, as he promises, for the whole country, the outcome of the election is not quite so ridiculous.

Of course, that is not how Nigel Farage sees it. He can point to Reform’s four seats for four million votes and contrast it with the Lib Dems winning 71 seats with half a million fewer votes.

Reform would obviously benefit from a more proportional voting system. But will the Lib Dems, for decades champions of “fair votes”, be so keen to join Farage’s campaign? This time, their 12 per cent of the vote has delivered them 11 per cent of Britain’s seats.

Indeed, while it is certain that a more proportional system would give Reform many more seats, it might give the Lib Dems fewer. After all, much of their success yesterday was built on tactical voting. They persuaded hundreds of thousands of Labour supporters that only the Lib Dems could defeat the Tories locally. Under a proportional system, they could return to Labour. Against that, the Lib Dems would hope to win back some of their supporters who voted tactically for Labour this time. Would the Lib Dems be net winners or losers? I’m not sure—especially if some of their voters prefer the Greens in a system where every vote counted.

Meanwhile, the Tories need to find a way to reverse by far the biggest battering they have ever received. Labour’s best chance of winning again in 2029 and giving Starmer the 10 years he says he needs “to reverse Britain’s decline” is for the rivals on the right to stay divided. The coming months should tell us whether they will help Labour as much next time as they have this time.