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Richardson: Lessons from the UK election for Canada and the US

Richardson: Lessons from the UK election for Canada and the US

Election campaigns are important because they provide information about how the parties will govern. Decency is important. Competence is important.

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Politicians can learn a lot from the recent UK election, which ended 14 years of Conservative rule and saw the Labour Party take power with an overwhelming majority of 174 seats. Here are some lessons:

• Democratic systems only work when everyone is willing to accept the results. Watching the live broadcast on television, I was moved to see ballot boxes being rushed from polling stations to the “counting centers” before the votes were counted by hand and candidates lined up to hear the results.

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• It is important to admit defeat with dignity. In his speech on 5 July, outgoing Prime Minister Rishi Sunak apologised for his party’s record and described the new Prime Minister Sir Keir Starmer as “a decent, public-spirited man who I respect”.

• It is also important to declare victory with dignity. In his six-minute post-election speech, Starmer promised that his government would serve you: “Whether you voted Labour or not, and especially if you didn’t, I say to you directly: my government will serve you.”

• Election campaigns are important because they tell us how parties will govern. Starmer’s disciplined campaign has proved his mettle. From the moment he called an election in the pouring rain, without a raincoat or umbrella, the hapless Sunak ran a disastrous campaign that epitomised his party’s chaotic reign.

• Politicians quickly return to being normal people after leaving office. Shortly after Sunak submitted his resignation to King Charles, his black Range Rover was spotted on a narrow country road as the MP for Richmond and Northallerton drove home to his North Yorkshire constituency. Within 40 minutes of Sunak leaving 10 Downing Street, the Labour team moved in with Starmer and his family.

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• Diversity in the civil service can and should be the norm. Sunak was born in Southampton to Indian parents who emigrated to Britain from East Africa in the 1960s. Starmer’s government is the most diverse ever.

• Some right-wing, populist politicians are more entertainers and provocateurs than real leaders. With his unkempt hair and quips, Boris Johnson was an amusing figure. But he lacked character and lost his job when his government imposed strict COVID lockdown rules while throwing parties at 10 Downing Street.

• Slogans do not make good government. “Brexit means Brexit” and “Brexit must be done” have been the oft-repeated maxims of prime ministers since the 2016 referendum. Behind the empty phrases lay turmoil and lies. A recent report by Cambridge Econometrics suggests that Brexit has cost the British economy £140 billion and two million jobs. Instead of stopping the unlimited flow of EU citizens as promised, net immigration has soared, from 200,000 before Brexit to 745,000 in 2022.

• Competence is important. As an unnamed minister said in a Guardian article on 30 June, Sunak has done his best considering his two predecessors were “a comedian and a madman”. Starmer is an uncharismatic lawyer with an eye for detail. In other words, he is competent.

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• Governments have a limited lifespan and when their time is up, people don’t have to love the alternative to vote for change. Labour won a “loveless landslide”: 63 percent of the 650 seats with just 34 percent of the vote. A change of leadership won’t help. Sunak was doomed, no matter how capable he proved to be.

• Human decency registers at the ballot box. Voters noticed when Sunak left ageing D-Day veterans “on the beaches” to come home from French commemorations and give a TV interview. They noticed when party workers used inside information to bet on the election date. Global and economic problems do not always translate into decisions at the ballot box; rudeness and greed do.

Even though Britain has its own dynamics, the 2024 election was both inspiring and instructive. Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Justin Trudeau, Pierre Poilievre and others would do well to learn from it.

John M. Richardson teaches at the Faculty of Education at the University of Ottawa.

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