Grieving and unheard, the British public has voted for change – in weariness more than in hope

If we have learned anything from the 2024 election, it is that a moody electorate is volatile, not least because it has its own pressing stories to tell – many of which are simply not being heard.
Keir Starmer
Keir Starmer
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In every election campaign, there is a contrast between the incessantly reinforced narratives of political leaders and the media, and the popular mood that simmers below the surface.

In 2024, this gap came to define the election. Much of what really mattered to voters lay in what was deeply felt, yet was only present as a nagging, niggling sense of complaint from the sidelines of the formal political arena.

Difficult to define, the concept of “political mood” refers to thoughts and feelings that emerge in response to our experience of being in the world. People do not decide to adopt a political mood; the mood adopts them. It is a feeling of being caught up in something that is both overwhelming and undefined.

How can the mood of the 2024 UK election best be described? This was an election in which what remained unsaid weighed more heavily than what was spoken. In the years leading up to the vote, the public services that people had come to depend upon were left to fall apart. A gradual mood of shocked loss emerged along the way, and voters sought big solutions.

From the loss of access to GPs and dentists to the absence of textbooks in their children’s schools, to the reliance of working families on food banks to feed their kids, this was the first electorate in generations to be voting with an expectation that their lives would be materially worse than their parents’.

As they pleaded for people’s votes, politicians seemed unable to fully grasp the psychic consequences of this loss. In the case of the Tories, this was because they were widely regarded as being responsible for presiding with moral indifference over the wreckage of the UK’s social infrastructure. Labour politicians, meanwhile, bound by a self-imposed fiscal dogma, resisted any demand for radical regeneration as if it were an act of economic heresy. Never in living memory has there been an election in which voters were offered so little to look forward to.

Haunted by the recent past

Public mood was also shaped by the recent memory of the governing rule-makers who were exposed as serial rule-breakers. Partygate was the most egregiously memorable exhibition of untrustworthiness, but it alone was not responsible for the profound damage caused to the political contract between state and citizens. It will be for future historians to evaluate the extent to which democratic politics between 2016 and 2024 was weakened by the arrogant recklessness of Britain’s political elite.

But on election night, as the results came in, the image in people’s minds will have been of the then leader of the House of Commons, Jacob-Rees Mogg, lounging with his feet up in the chamber in 2019 as his government sought to prorogue parliament unlawfully.

They will have remembered hearing of the COVID “VIP lane” for well-connected personal protective equipment (PPE) suppliers. While ordinary Britons struggled to make ends meet, these lucky few were paid billions of pounds in public funding, often in return for shoddy goods. And, most recently, they will have remembered the Tory anointment of Liz Truss as prime minister. Elections are memory wars and political mood is bursting with raging memories.

The spectre of elections yet to come

Finally, the mood of this election was shaped by a prevalent sense that the world has become frighteningly turbulent, with democratic norms more vulnerable than at any time since the 1930s.

Who, even ten years ago, would have thought that by the mid-2020s, a candidate possessing a recklessly anti-democratic agenda would be on course to win the US presidential election for a second time? Who would have believed that populist anti-immigration parties would be in the ascendancy across Europe, while their British counterpart could entertain serious hope of having a controlling influence within a British government in the near future?

Democracy is forever fragile but, right now, it faces a perfect storm that is hardly conducive to lifting the prevailing mood of political anxiety.

As they cast their vote, many will have felt aware, even if only subconsciously, that the most prominent trend in international governance is towards illiberalism. They may have been wondering whether this would be the last election before people lose patience with the politics of predictable regularity, and surrender to the seductive embrace of anti-democratic demagogy.

Amongst the many complex challenges facing politicians after this election, developing a sensibility towards public mood should not be neglected. It is one thing to change people’s voting preferences, quite another to change how they feel.

If we have learned anything from the 2024 election, it is that a moody electorate is volatile, not least because it has its own pressing stories to tell – many of which are simply not being heard.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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