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Starmer sets out to heal UK’s divisions after Labour landslide

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The United Kingdom’s new Prime Minister swept into 10 Downing Street with a massive Labour Party majority at Westminster. But with only just over a third of the votes cast in the parliamentary election, Sir Keir Starmer knows that behind the wild distortions of the first-past-the-post electoral system, it was also a breakthrough for the extremes of British politics.

Nigel Farage’s Reform UK benefited from the post-Brexit trauma he did so much to cause, contributing to the worst result for the Conservatives in the UK’s democratic history. Meanwhile, pro-Palestine candidates inflicted defeats on Labour as well.

In his speech when he arrived in Downing Street after being appointed Prime Minister by King Charles, Sir Keir pledged to govern by putting “country first, party second”. It’s a country of great inequality; before Brexit, Inner London was by far the wealthiest place in the EU, yet the UK was the only part of north-west Europe to still have regions that qualified for the most generous level of European aid.

Sometimes described as being ‘not so much a wealthy country, as a poor country where a lot of wealthy people happen to live’, the UK was promised by its new Prime Minister that “we will rebuild Britain with wealth created in every community”. He committed to “a rediscovery of who we are” and that England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would be “four nations standing together again”.

But in Northern Ireland, the divisions in unionism deepened and the Irish republican Sinn Féin is now the biggest party, so hostile to the very concept of the United Kingdom that its MPs will not even take their seats at Westminster. In Wales, Labour remains the biggest party but actually saw its vote share decline. with the nationalist Plaid Cymru and the centrist Liberal Democrats sharing the spoils as the Conservatives were wiped out.

Labour had a very good election in Scotland, defeating dozens of Scottish National Party MPs. Labour’s leader in Scotland, Anas Sarwar, claimed that “we have turned the tide in the UK against the rise of extremism”. He was presumably thinking of Scottish nationalists who want to break away and the Conservatives who did take the UK out of the EU.

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But many of his fellow Muslims in England rejected Labour, outraged by Sir Keir Starmer’s strong support for Israel’s invasion of Gaza. Four pro-Palestine independents won seats from Labour. Another four MPs from the extreme of politics are the prominent Brexiter Nigel Farage and his Reform UK colleagues (with one the party’s target seats still to declare). He promised that “this is something that is going to stun all of you”, promising to target Labour votes after taking four million votes mostly from the Conservatives.

His party comfortably outpolled the strongly pro-EU Greens, though they more or less matched Reform in seats. He also did better in votes than the also pro-European Liberal Democrats, who nevertheless emerged from the pack of minor parties to regain the status of the third force at Westminster.

It was undoubtedly an historic triumph for Labour but anyone who cares about UK-EU relations or is alarmed by the rise of the populist right in so many countries will worry whether it was Reform UK’s breakthrough that was the true turning point in British political history.

But as Rishi Sunak quit as Prime Minister, leaving Downing Street to jeers from a crowd waiting for Sir Keir Starmer’s arrival, European leaders’ focus was firmly on the immediate consequences of the election.

Eight years since the Brexit vote, European Council president Charles Michel said the UK and Europe are “crucial partners” as he congratulated the Labour leader. Mr Michel declared that Sir Keir’s election would mark a “new cycle” for the UK as he looked forward to working together on “common challenges”.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said she wants a “constructive partnership” to address common challenges and strengthen European security”. One of the first major events of Sir Keir’s premiership will be when he hosts a meeting of the European Political Community later this month.

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