Brexit Institute News

A Stonking Labour Majority

Dr Ian Cooper* (DCU Brexit Institute)

Keir Starmer has become UK Prime Minister after his Labour Party won a landslide victory in Thursday’s general election. As of Friday afternoon, Labour had secured 412 seats which is, in the parlance of UK elections, a majority of 174. (This means that in the 650-seat House of Commons they hold 174 more than all the other parties combined.) This is a gain of 211 seats, which is a phenomenal turnaround in comparison to the 2019 election which was Labour’s worst result since 1935. It is just a few seats shy of the 418 seats won by Tony Blair in 1997, which ushered in 13 years of Labour government. 

What is just as remarkable is that Labour saw such a huge gain in seats with just a small rise in the vote share, from 32% to 34%. This was far less than some of the pre-election polls, which had indicated Labour might win 40% or more (and far less than the 43% share for Labour in 1997). Remarkably, Labour won 63% of the seats with just 34% of the votes – an extremely efficient distribution of votes for seats. Critics of the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system will deplore the disproportionality of the result, but Labour has shown stellar success within the existing rules.

The other big winner in this regard were the Liberal Democrats, who won a record 71 seats, an eightfold increase, having fought a jaunty but relentlessly focused campaign. This was also an efficient distribution insofar as they won 11% of the seats with 12% of the vote. 

The Conservative defeat was even more resounding and historic than the Labour victory. The party lost 252 seats and were reduced to a rump of 121, literally the worst result in the party’s history going back centuries. This represents 19% of the seats in the House of Commons, based on a vote share of 24% (compared to 44% in 2019). This is the first time in modern history that the party’s vote has ever fallen below 30% in a general election. 

The Conservatives have governed for 14 years under five prime ministers in various formations: first in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats (2010-2015), then with a small majority of 10 (2015-2017), then with a minority government in an unstable confidence-and-supply agreement with the DUP (2017-2019), and finally with a majority of 80 (2019-2024). 

Voters punished the Tories for the chaos wrought from multiple crises, some of which were entirely self-inflicted, including Brexit and the economic implosion that ensued from the mini-budget debacle under Liz Truss (who has now lost her seat). Rishi Sunak was more competent than his immediate predecessors but this was not enough to turn the tide. 

The other big loser – even worse in proportional terms – was the Scottish National Party who lost 38 seats and were reduced to just 9. Almost all of those seats went to Labour, which is now once again dominant in Scotland. 

Labour also dominated in Wales, winning 27 of 32 seats (4 seats went to Plaid Cymru and one to the Lib Dems). The Conservatives, who had previously won 14 seats in 2019, have been reduced to zero. 

Another big story of the night was the rise of the Reform Party led by Nigel Farage, which took the third largest vote share, 14%, but just a paltry 5 seats. A large part of the explanation of how Labour managed to win so many seats with a modest vote share is that many disaffected anti-Tory votes were diverted to Reform, which piled up enough votes to frequently finish in second place, but only rarely came in first. 

The result in Northern Ireland was also seismic in that Sinn Fein is for the first time the largest party in a Westminster election – just as it was the largest party in local elections in 2023 and the Stormont elections of 2022. Sinn Fein won just 7 seats – the same as 2019 – but overtook the DUP, previously the largest party, which fell from 8 seats to 5. Ian Paisley Jr. lost his seat despite the personal endorsement of his “beer buddy” Nigel Farage; he lost it to Jim Allister of the TUV, who himself had forged an on-again-off-again alliance with Reform. Sorcha Eastwood of Alliance won the seat vacated by Jeffrey Donaldson, the disgraced former DUP leader. While Sinn Fein is the largest party they do not take their seats in Westminster, following their long-standing policy of abstention. The only voices for (moderate) Irish nationalism actually sitting in the House of Commons will be the two stalwart MPs, Colum Eastwood and Claire Hanna, who were reelected for the SDLP. 

All in all, this is an electoral earthquake, the reverberations of which – including for UK-EU relations – will continue to be felt for years to come.

*Ian Cooper is a Senior Research Fellow at the DCU Brexit Institute.

The views expressed in this blog post are the position of the author and not necessarily those of the Brexit Institute blog. 

(Photo: Reuters)