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What to Brexpect on 4 July, Pt 2: Brexit and other conservative calamities shape UK general election

(Editor’s note: This is the second part in a two-part series as we move toward 23 June 2024, the eighth anniversary of the Brexit referendum, and the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union. You can jump to Pt. 1 here.)

Eight years to the day that half the British political establishment scored one of the most spectacular own goals in history by leading its country out of the European Union, another United Kingdom referendum is almost upon us. This time it’s a vote on whether to keep a Conservative government in power that has stumbled from one calamitous catastrophe to the next for the past 14 years.

A viable alternative?

It’s not surprising, then, that unlike Brexit, the result of the forthcoming vote isn’t in doubt. Keir Starmer’s Labour Party, Britain’s main opposition outfit, is set to gain a comfortable parliamentary majority. The only question is how big the majority will be. Polls are currently predicting a Labour landslide, but this is far from certain.

Starmer seems to be competing primarily for the mantle of the least inspiring leader ever to win an election.

He’s made it quite clear that what he stands for is absolutely nothing. Or, rather, he stands for whatever seems most opportune to serve his own career at any given moment. He spent most of his time as one of the country’s most senior human rights lawyers as an outspoken campaigner against the Iraq War and other British military operations. Two years ago he published a love letter to NATO in a major newspaper, writing in favour of more military interventions and increased spending on arms.

“Sir” Keir, as he is officially titled courtesy of Her Majesty the late Queen, was previously a staunch anti-monarchist while editor of a republican journal. He claims to hail from a working class background and that he advocated for striking miners and dockers victimised by the police during the 1980s.

He now regularly writes op-eds for far-right Rupert Murdoch-owned rag The Sun, and has spent the last four years repressing support for trade unions within his own party. He campaigned against Brexit, and then for a second referendum once it had happened. In fact, as shadow Minister for Exiting the European Union he was the architect of Labour’s confusing and nonsensical proposal for Brexit which aimed to please everyone and pleased absolutely no one, leading to electoral annihilation in 2019.

10 Deceptions

Yet the moment he became Labour Leader, Starmer abandoned any form of pro-European stance, slipping the word “patriot” into his sound bites at every available opportunity. He soon dusted off Theresa May’s vapid “Brexit means Brexit” slogan, and quashed the notion of any form of customs union with Europe in the future.

Just two years into his tenure as a member of parliament, Starmer was one of the first to jump ship in the so-called “chicken coup” of 2016, in which around 170 Labour MPs attempted to oust incumbent leader Jeremy Corbyn against the democratic will of the party membership. A few months later, Starmer joined Corbyn’s shadow cabinet and was singing his praises.

Upon his own election as the party’s leader, Starmer promised to unite a factious Labour riven with infighting. He outlined his commitment to carrying out the 10 pledges on which he stood, taking what he described as the best of the previous leadership’s policies and adding his own. He has since rowed back on every single one of these pledges, from redistributing the burdens of income and corporation tax and a “Green New Deal”, to delivering “effective opposition to the Tories” by harnessing the full campaigning potential of Labour’s mass membership.

It’s worth noting that Labour membership has dropped 40 percent since Starmer took charge, in thousands of cases thanks to authoritarian purges, and entire party branches have been shut down simply for using democratic channels to call out their leader’s broken promises.

Within months of becoming leader, he proposed a national government in which the party would join forces with Boris Johnson’s Conservatives.

What will change?

If and when Labour wins the election, it will be in spite of its leadership, and because most people are now willing to do anything just to get the Tories out. The Conservatives themselves are facing an existential crisis unprecedented in their 350-year history. They could end up with as few as 60 seats, a rump of the world’s oldest political party that used to govern one quarter of the earth’s surface.

And whatever the precise results, the party’s leadership will once again fall into the hands of the most rabid, lunatic element of their membership.

The election will also likely see a record number of small parties and independent gaining seats.

Various elements from Nigel Farage’s deformed, far-right Reform UK, George Galloway’s demagogic Workers’ Party, and numerous individual Labour and Tory outcasts are all polling well in specific constituencies.

Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system won’t have seen anything like it since the early 1800s. However the electoral map is redrawn, though, very little will actually change for ordinary people.

At least, not for the better.

Keir Starmer will be more than happy to make carbon copies of Conservative policies, perhaps with a minor tweak here or there. And he’ll deliver them with a reluctant sigh, rather than the openly divisive rhetoric of Tory headbangers. Which, of course, is what really counts.

Britain used to be a major asset to Europe. Now, as Europeans cast their eyes towards the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party taking place across the English Channel, they’d be forgiven for wondering whether they’re better off without us after all.


Read more about Brexit here in Dispatches’ archives.

See more from Alex here.

Alex Beaton

Alex Beaton is a writer from London, UK. His published works include a guide to starting a business in Warsaw, a fictionalised account of his time living in Egypt, and a 2013 report of the political situation in Bulgaria. He has also written extensively about his travels in France, Portugal, Italy and Malta.

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