By William Horncastle (University of Bedfordshire)

Last Thursday, the British electorate went to the polls in the first general election since 2019. As one of the most consequential events of the 21st Century, the election represented a victory for Kier Starmer, who won Labour their first election since 2005, ending 14 years of Conservative government in the process. While a 174 seat majority suggests a narrative of overwhelming support for a Labour government, a dig beneath the surface level shows that, perhaps, this may be an overly simplistic assessment of the result. Providing analysis of voting trends, this post outlines five important stories of the election and, subsequently, discusses challenges for Britain’s political parties going forward.

Starmer’s Victory and Parliamentary Disproportionality
The key headline of the election is Labour’s return to government for the first time since 2010. Since being voted out of government in the midst of the financial crisis, Labour have undergone major transformations under subsequent leaders Ed Miliband, Jeremy Corbyn and, now, Kier Starmer. Following a disastrous showing under Corbyn in 2019, Starmer secured 412 seats for the party. While this figure did not quite reach the heights of Tony Blair’s record total of 418, in 1997, Starmer’s majority is the largest of the 21st Century. Indeed, when excluding Blair’s landslide, last week’s election returned the largest majority of the post-World War II period. Despite this groundbreaking result, however, Labour may have some work to do in garnering support and building trust in government. The overall turnout of just 60 percent indicates a wide reaching apathy toward political parties, while Labour’s share of the popular vote was just 1.7 percentage points higher than in 2019, where the party suffered its worst result, in terms of seat numbers, since 1935. These figures are a symptom of the First-Past-the-Post electoral system which, due to the breadth of support across Britain’s constituencies, allowed Labour to win almost two thirds of the seats available, from a share of just one third of the popular vote. These factors are reflected in the overall composition of Parliament, which is now one of the least proportional in history.

Johnson, Truss, Sunak and Conservative Turmoil
A key aspect of Labour’s victory concerns huge losses for the Conservative government. Reflecting their instability, the party had three leaders since the previous election, in 2019. Winning the Conservatives an 80 seat majority, Boris Johnson later resigned following alleged breaches of COVID-19 lockdown and social distancing requirements. His replacement, Liz Truss, lasted just forty nine days, leaving office as the least popular Prime Minister since records began. By the time Rishi Sunak entered office, in October 2022, the Conservatives were already far behind Labour in the polls. As election year approached, the question on most people’s minds was not who would emerge victorious, but how big Labour’s majority would be. Ultimately, the performance of the Conservatives was so poor as to break numerous records. The party won its lowest ever number of seats since its 1832 formation, for instance, while the decrease in vote share relative to the previous election was greater than any incumbent government in history. Much of the public’s ire was directed to senior figures within the party, with more cabinet ministers losing their Parliamentary seats than in any previous election. Less than two years on from her resignation as Prime Minister, Liz Truss lost her Parliamentary seat – where she won a majority of over 26,000 in 2019 – to a Labour candidate in what would become one of the key moments of election coverage. The Conservative performance can perhaps be summarized by the fact that 26 of the party’s candidates lost their £500 election deposit, failing to win at least 5 percent of the votes in their respective constituencies.

Farage, Reform and Protest Voting: A New Force on the Right?
While Labour undoubtedly profited from the Conservative collapse, Nigel Farage’s Reform UK were a central figure in the election, attracting more than 14 percent of the vote. Farage’s victory in the Clacton constituency became a major story, as he successfully won a Parliamentary seat at the eighth attempt. Despite significant gains in vote share for Reform – a rebranded version of the single issue Brexit Party – the party were only able to win 5 seats. Much of the party’s success in garnering popular support can be attributed to tactical and protest voting against the Conservative government, which is shown in Reform’s second place finish in 98 constituencies. This was, ultimately, a major result for the fledgling party. Recognising the inevitability of Labour’s victory, Reform’s role as the anti-establishment voice was a key aspect of the campaign. Farage pitched the party as an alternative to the status quo and argued that, as official opposition, Reform would hold Starmer to account. Although the party fell far short of meeting this target, it may grow into a prominent voice in future Parliaments, should Labour fail to garner public support in government.

Ed Davey and the Liberal Democrat Recovery
Although most news coverage naturally focussed on Labour’s victory, the Liberal Democrats proved to be an additional success story of the election, winning a record 72 seats. This is a significant departure from recent trends for the party, whose representation dropped to a low of just 8 seats at the 2015 election. Following a period in coalition with the Conservatives (2010-2015), where leader Nick Clegg was criticised for abandoning key pledges of the party, the Liberal Democrats spent almost a decade on the back foot. Post-Clegg, the party became known for its staunch position against Brexit and the desire for a second referendum, cycling through leaders Tim Farron, Vince Cable, and Jo Swinson, before turning to current leader Ed Davey, in 2020. Under Davey, the party focused its efforts at democratic reform, including lowing the voting age to 16 and the adoption of a proportional representation electoral system. Despite success in terms of seat numbers, however, the Liberal Democrat result was elevated based on breadth of support across constituencies. In a quirk of the First Past the Post system, the Liberal Democrats’ 72 seats were gained from a vote share 2.1 percentage points lower than Reform who, as previously mentioned, won just 5 seats in Parliament.

Patterns in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland
In Scotland, the election result was a major blow for the Scottish National Party (SNP), who saw their representation in Parliament drop to 9 seats, from the 48 won in 2019. This is a major fall from grace for the party, who held a near monopoly on Scottish electorates less than 10 years ago. Scotland, once again, proved to be a success story for Labour, who rose to 37 seats; a major improvement on the single seat won in 2019. Following a prolonged period of success under leader Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP has faltered under subsequent leaders Humza Yousaf, who lasted little more than a year as Scotland’s First Minister, and John Swinney, who took charge of the party just two months before the election. Perhaps contributing to this defeat, the SNP has been the subject of scandal in recent years, including the arrest of Sturgeon for alleged financial improprieties. Ultimately, the SNP’s defeat suggests that a referendum on Scottish independence – following up on the unsuccessful poll of 2014 – is unlikely to emerge in the near future.
Wales has traditionally been a heartland for Labour, who have won the plurality of the Welsh vote at all elections in the past 100 years. Despite making gains at the 2019 election, Welsh Conservatives lost all of their seats in 2024. Once again, Farage’s Reform proved to be a difference maker in this result, gaining roughly 17 percent of the vote and splitting the right wing of the electorate. Although the vote share for Labour dropped almost 4 percentage points on 2019 figures, the party won 27 available seats; a considerable increase on their 2019 performance, which delivered 22 representatives. Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru saw an increase in votes, retaining their 4 seats, while the Liberal Democrats won a Welsh seat for the first time since 2015.

Although the Welsh constituencies displayed similar trends to those of England and Scotland, the unique dynamics of politics on the island of Ireland makes for a different party system. The Labour party do not stand candidates in the Northern Irish constituencies, for instance, while the two main players, Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), are divided based on their positions on unionism versus nationalism. At this election, Sinn Féin became the largest Northern Irish party in British Parliament for the first time in their history. Maintaining 7 seats, declining support for the DUP ensured that the party strengthened their relative position in Parliament. In a key moment of the election, the DUP’s Ian Paisley Jr. lost his North Antrim seat, which had been continuously held by the Paisley family since 1970. Due to their long-standing policy of abstentionism, however, representatives of Sinn Féin will not take their seats in British Parliament. This position is based on the party’s support for Irish republicanism and lack of recognition of British rule in Northern Ireland.

Future Challenges for Britain’s Political Parties
Absent of a strong and unified Parliamentary opposition, Labour ultimately have a strong mandate upon which to deliver on their promises of change. With their 174 seat majority built on a foundation of just one third of the popular vote – and the lowest turnout since 2001 – Labour cannot risk complacency. In opposition, the Conservatives must take stock of this defeat and reflect on which direction to take under a new leader, else the party risks decimation going forward. While this may have looked an impossible outcome just five years ago, one may point to Canada’s Progressive Conservative Party who, in the mid-1990s, moved from the biggest majority in the nation’s history to only two seats in the space of two elections. In a twist of irony, the demise of the Progressive Conservatives in Canada was tightly linked to the rise of the right-wing populist Reform Party. As occurred in the Canadian case, the Conservatives risk haemorrhaging their support Farage’s Reform, should the party surge in the coming years. Reform’s likely direction from here is to expand with a view to running candidates in more than the 609 constituencies that they contested at last week’s election. Following a period of erratic leadership, the Liberal Democrats have managed to stabilize under the guidance of Davey. Building on the best result in their history, the Liberal Democrats will look to sustain their momentum and, particularly, continue to move away from their past associations with the faltering Conservative party. Finally, it is difficult to suggest where the SNP will go from here. As Labour and the Liberal Democrats can attest, time is a valuable asset in the rebuilding of trust. The SNP have a long way to go in convincing the Scottish public that they are a valuable asset in Parliament and, particularly, that they have moved beyond the scandals of previous leaders. Whatever happens from here, the 2024 election has proven to be one of the most significant in modern history, breaking numerous records and ending 14 years of Conservative government.

Photo source: