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Drowning Downing Street

On a rainy afternoon in late May, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak stood outside 10 Downing Street to call a general election for 4th July. Whether buoyed by reduced inflation or threatened by possible challenges to his leadership from fellow Conservatives, Sunak’s announcement surprised many. It did little to allay fears that both party and country were in chaos. The poor weather, which soaked Sunak’s suit, was parodied as a reflection of the state of the nation and an omen of the Conservatives’ electoral prospects. The metaphor became even starker when Sunak’s speech was nearly drowned out by the hopeful 1990s Labour party anthem— D:Ream’s “Things Can Only Get Better”—blaring outside Downing Street’s gates.

Broken Britain: What’s at stake in the general election?

For many living in Britain, the stakes of this election have never been higher. Labour’s claims that the country is broken are well-founded. Over the past 14 years, a majority Conservative government has presided over some of the worst crises in living memory. The Global Financial Crisis ushered in a harsh era of Tory austerity. The close Brexit vote, and prolonged parliamentary scuffle over what leaving the European Union actually meant, called the resilience of British democracy into question. The government’s appalling response to the Covid-19 pandemic shed new light on a two-tier governance system. “Partygate”—where members of Boris Johnson’s government broke lockdown restrictions in rowdy gatherings while the public couldn’t even comfort dying loved-ones—fueled populist narratives of a privileged elite working against ordinary people. Successive changes in the Conservative leadership reinforced the general sense of crisis. In the past two years alone, we have had two new Prime Ministers, neither of whom the British public voted for. They were elected (or selected) by a small group of Conservative party members.

Life for the average person in Britain has become harder—and harder still for certain groups, such as the poor, women and minorities. Against this backdrop, it is unsurprising that people are ready for a change of government. “Change” is the Labour Party’s simple slogan and it appears to be resonating.

Practically, this has meant that life for the average person in Britain has become harder—and harder still for certain groups, such as the poor, women and minorities. Tory austerity and pandemic pressures have caused a severe decline in public services, and many local councils are on the verge of bankruptcy. Waiting times for the National Health Service are excruciatingly long. Public transport infrastructure frequently fails. Sewage has been found on our shores and even in our drinking water, thanks to light-touch regulation of profiteering water companies. At the same time, people’s expenses have soared. Taxes are at their highest level in seventy years. The cost-of-living crisis has added hundreds of pounds to people’s energy bills, housing costs and weekly shops. While these increases are partly due to international factors like the war in Ukraine, they are also the product of punishing domestic policies. Brexit’s disruption of trade flows has contributed to high food prices. Austerity had already increased foodbank use—and this has worsened as the cost of living has risen. Prime Minister Liz Truss’ 2022 mini budget spooked financial markets. According to Labour, this added £150 a week to mortgage repayments. Recent inquiries into national scandals—involving Post Office managers wrongly convicted of fraud and infected blood given to NHS patients—have implicated successive governments (both Conservative and Labour) in a general feeling that the state does not act in the public interest.

Against this backdrop, it is unsurprising that people are ready for a change of government. “Change” is the Labour Party’s simple slogan and it appears to be resonating. Polling has consistently shown that Labour has a substantial lead over the Conservatives—currently around 20 points. Some projections suggest that the Conservative party will be decimated. Many of its MPs have already chosen to retire from Parliament. However, polling also suggests public dissatisfaction with both major parties, and smaller parties are gaining ground. As campaigning progresses, Labour and the Tories are being outflanked on the left by the Liberal Democrats, Green Party, and Scottish National Party, and on the right by Reform UK, now led by Brexiter and former UK Independence Party leader, Nigel Farage. Despite their persistently low shares of voting intention, some speculate that the Liberal Democrats or Reform could shake up Parliament by becoming the official opposition to a likely Labour government.

Made to be memed: From the silly to the serious on the campaign trail

Dismal campaigning has also contributed to the Conservatives’ poor polling. Journalists are keeping tally of weekly campaign gaffes—from Sunak’s fudged election announcement to his careless decision to leave a major D-Day commemoration event early. The perception is that Sunak is either particularly bad at basic politics or actively self-sabotaging—some think that he would prefer to lose the election and return to Silicon Valley. In any case, the sense that Sunak is acutely out of touch with the electorate—an image aided by his marriage into a super-rich family—was bolstered by his recent account of an unfortunate childhood without Sky TV. Almost everything that Sunak does is made to be memed. While Labour leader Keir Starmer has fared better, he hasn’t escaped scorn and derision entirely.

At the other end of the spectrum, smaller parties have been making the most of their time on the campaign trail. They can afford to engage in silly, eye-catching stunts that attract media interest as they have little chance of forming a government. Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey has grabbed headlines in campaigning dubbed “Lib Dem lolz.” Davey is pictured daily falling off a paddleboard, hurtling downhill on a bike, or drumming with elderly care home residents. As he approaches national treasure status, Davey’s serious message about reforming social care, rooted in his personal experiences of caring for family members, has gained traction. This has gone some way to rehabilitating the Liberal Democrats’ image after their broken promises on raising university tuition fees, participation in austerity during the Coalition government with the Conservatives (2010-2015), and Davey’s own role in the Post Office scandal. Reform has also courted media attention with campaign stunts, particularly Farage’s “surprise” announcement of his eighth attempt at becoming an MP.

One of the most striking features of the campaign so far has been the main parties’ reluctance to grapple with Brexit. Brexit’s so-called benefits have failed to materialize. The smaller parties, at least, have found their own ways of talking about this.

Beyond these individual personalities, one of the most striking features of the campaign so far has been the main parties’ reluctance to grapple with Brexit. Despite campaigning almost exclusively at the last election to “Get Brexit Done,” there is little pride over the so-called Brexit dividend (the belief that Britain would be better off outside the EU) in the current Conservative manifesto. Labour’s manifesto mentions Brexit even less. The party seems scared to make any strong claims lest they deter the return of traditional “red wall” voters— Brexiters who switched to the Conservatives during the 2019 election. In reality, Brexit’s so-called benefits have failed to materialize. Brexit has already caused economic harm, measured by a reduction in real GDP of 2-3% (projected to rise to 5-6% by 2035). The smaller parties, at least, have found their own ways of talking about this. For Reform, the Tories have squandered the opportunities of Brexit, and Britain’s current relationship with the EU must be renegotiated. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats are promising to rejoin the single European market. Others have gone further. The SNP’s Westminster leader Stephen Flynn spoke to the broader sense of national crisis when he argued in a TV debate that Brexit is an “unmitigated disaster.”

Returning to the past or returning to the future?

Like all states in crisis, Britain is a breeding ground for nostalgia—the feeling that things were better in the past. When the present is scary and depressing, and the future uncertain, nostalgia portrays the past as a safe haven. Amid the intersecting crises that Britain has recently faced, from Brexit to Covid to broader failures of state, nostalgia has become a feature of British politics. This was strikingly the case during the Brexit referendum, when Leavers promised to make an independent Britain great again, and is also apparent in the current general election campaign. Often, nostalgic narratives provide their audience with a villain to blame for the crisis of the present. In Britain—as elsewhere in Europe and the US—migrants have increasingly been placed in this villainous role. During the referendum, Brexiters urged the public to “take back control,” arguing that immigrants were responsible for declining public services and an allegedly increased threat of violence. This framing explicitly called for a return to a “simpler” past. Its demands to restore order by controlling those deemed racially and culturally different also echoed the British Empire’s tactics for managing such groups and maintaining Britain’s greatness.

Nostalgic narratives provide their audience with a villain to blame for the crisis of the present. In Britain—as elsewhere in Europe and the US—migrants have increasingly been placed in this villainous role.

Since the referendum, the way that immigration is discussed has only worsened. As the Tories’ performance in government has declined, they have shifted even further to the right in desperate appeals to what they assume is their voter base. As then Home Secretary Suella Braverman stood up in Parliament to declare that Britain was being invaded by migrants crossing the English Channel in small boats, government policy hardened. Visas for “legal” migration were increasingly restricted and “illegal” asylum seekers earmarked for deportation to Rwanda in renewed efforts to return Britain to a past unblemished by immigration. Inhumane, expensive and ineffective, the failures of the Rwanda policy have encouraged competition for the Conservatives. Farage’s return to lead Reform is largely based on this issue. Reform has dubbed this the “immigration election” and its nostalgic slogan—”we want our country back”—echoes the campaigning of the Brexit referendum. It also reflects a broader consolidation of the far right, as seen in the recent European Parliament elections and the resurgence of Donald Trump in America.

Labour has also lurched rightwards on immigration, as on other issues. Their manifesto suggests that there is little separating it from Conservative tradition. For Starmer, Labour’s promises of “change” also mean changing the party itself. Following a spell under leftist leader Jeremy Corbyn, scandals around antisemitism and its failure to win the 2019 general election, Starmer has pledged that Labour will listen to the public and put country before party. In practice, this has meant embracing an anti-immigration, pro-business, Britishness agenda— with Union Jack flags conspicuously adorning campaign materials in a manner that the party had previously shunned for its nationalist connotations. This approach is not entirely new and instead suggests a nostalgic return to the future.

In both style and substance, Starmer’s Labour invites comparison with the 1990s party under Tony Blair. Surrounding himself with Blairites, Starmer’s policies mirror Blair’s party “modernization” efforts—a strategy thought to make Labour electable again to (small “c”) conservative voters. Some polling predicts that Labour is on course for a landslide victory similar to Blair’s in 1997. Starmer’s Blairite credentials are summed up in the slogan that Labour had been using shortly before the election was called: “Let’s Get Britain’s Future Back.” At work here is a form of nostalgia that appeals to the safe haven of the past while also being forward-looking. It promises to return the country not exactly to what it was in the 1990s, but to what it could have been had a decade and a half of Conservative rule not ended the hopeful Blair-Brown years. It is about returning to a fictional future that the Tories stole.

Things can only get better?

While Labour looks like it will secure a substantial majority, it is not clear that things can only get better in broken Britain. Despite Starmer’s Blairite brand of hopeful nostalgia, for those on the left of British politics, his policies on immigration and business are depressingly similar to the Conservatives. His promises to improve public services may also prove short-lived due to struggles to raise revenue. Meanwhile, a failure to condemn Israel’s assault on Gaza—when even the United Nations has accused Israel of war crimes—is reportedly alienating Muslim voters and all those who favor Labour for its traditional protection of human rights. For many of us, then, a Labour government looks less like meaningful change and more like Tory lite.

It is not clear that things can only get better in broken Britain. For many, a Labour government looks less like meaningful change and more like Tory lite.


Francesca Melhuish is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Warwick, where she earned her PhD in 2021. Her research focuses on the politics of nostalgia, particularly in Britain. Her work on the role of nostalgia in the Brexit referendum has been published in the Journal of Common Market Studies and the British Journal of Politics and International Relations. She is currently writing a book. 

Image made by John Chrobak using “Cathaoirleach of Seanad Éireann attends State Opening of Parliament in Westminster,” by Houses of the Oireachtas licensed under CC Attribution 2.0 Generic; “Budget 2014; Chancellor George Osborne delivering his Budget Statement,” by HM Treasury licensed under Open Government Licence v3.0; “Accession Council of King Charles III – 04,” by Katie Chan licensed under CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International; “UK average house price over time,” by Tweedle licensed under CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International; “Brexit_Banners,” by ChiralJon licensed under CC Attribution 2.0 Generic; “10 Downing Street. MOD 45155532 (cropped),” by Sergeant Tom Robinson RLC licensed under Open Government Licence version 1.0; “Nigel Farage,” by Gage Skidmore licensed under CC Attribution-Sharealike 2.0 Generic.

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