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It has been a terrible general election. The least we can do is learn from it | Hugh Muir

It started with dark comedy. The sight of Rishi Sunak, behind the podium at No 10, drenched by the rain – a drowned rat in a sharp suit, drowned out by a hostile loudspeaker, bellowing out the fact of his sudden-death election – belonged to vaudeville.

The race itself belonged to Hobbes: “poor, nasty, brutish and short”.

And at the end, after all the speeches, the televised debates, the photo ops, the accusations, the helicopter rides, the leaflet-filled vehicles crisscrossing the country, the vox pops, what did we learn about our country and our politics?

We learned more about the foolish recklessness of those who have ruled us. Sunak called his election for himself and for his party and for his faction. There was nothing further from his mind, as he dripped rainwater, than the good of the nation or our democracy. He had no plan, other than to parrot the inanity that “the plan” was working. Tell that to the food bank volunteers or the coastguard at Dover.

He sought endorsement from a bemused electorate on the basis that he would accomplish fanciful things that he and the gallery of frauds and flops who preceded him had palpably failed to achieve. There would be levelling up – with 30 towns receiving £20m each. Levelling up, the great Tory chimera bequeathed by Boris Johnson, as elusive to that parsimonious party as the beast in Loch Ness. Sunak spun that tale again, bolstered with a promise to crack down on firms that despoil town centres with bubblegum.

The Rwanda plan, the flop of flops, would arise with certainty and vigour, so we would see “a relentless, continual process of permanently removing illegal migrants to Rwanda with a regular rhythm of flights every month”.

It could have been more podium-based comedy, but in fact it was presented to the public as serious renewal: actual policy. We learned that after 14 years, in multiple iterations, the Conservatives had nothing genuine to offer, but remained willing nonetheless to sell plastic gems and snake oil to those whose health and jobs and education and homes and futures depended on them.

What we learned from Labour was actually a great deal about ourselves. It came into the election 20 points ahead in the polls and by the end, polling-wise it ended the short campaign still streets ahead of the Tories. The talk among party strategists today was that theirs had been a good campaign, and on the Ming vase theory – that there should always be caution and never turbulence – that is unquestionably right.

There was nothing to truly inspire, other than the fact that Labour success meant Tory defenestration. Many of us regretted the low-key tenor of the campaign, indeed the lack of connection with ordinary people, with other progressives and even with others of long standing in his party that has characterised Keir Starmer’s tenure.

But we should ask: why this approach? What is this political culture that so rigs the game that the main progressive party in this country feels its only route to power is to say as little as possible? Look at our political system and the iniquities of first past the post, which means the winner takes all. But also look at our slavish, rightward-slanted media. There is no good faith here – there are evangelically nativist TV and radio stations and newspapers that sold all journalistic detachment to achieve Brexit, and now present as house journals for a rightwing cult.

If we don’t like how Starmer did his business, maybe another question is: could it have been done another way? It has been a reductive approach calibrated for a denuded culture. Hard to watch, impossible to enthuse about, even for those of us who dearly hoped for its success. We should think about that method, but then long and hard about the society that made it necessary.

Heed, too, what was learned from communities. Every reporter – every Guardian columnist – dispatched to the towns and villages of this country encountered some measure of anger, disappointment, bewilderment and sadness. Many voters, revolted by issues such as Gaza or small boats, had opted out completely.

Others saw respite in smaller parties. They were amused by the geniality of Ed Davey bungee jumping and surfing in the hope they might scrutinise a Liberal Democrat policy. Others cited Nigel Farage and the hard-right Reform UK as their antidote, but what is that if not a poisoning addressed with more poison? Some took their grievances to a slew of independent parties and candidates. That was new in scale and positive in its way. If only we had a voting system that offered them some reward.

Whatever the location, the narrative was much the same. There is volcanic material beneath our feet. The issue is how and when it erupts.

And so, six weeks after hapless Sunak set this self-serving process in motion, there is to be a new era and new clarity in Westminster and the corridors of power. But we should also have a better understanding of the scale of the task of allying a broken, dysfunctional politics to the needs and anxieties of ordinary people.

It truly was a “poor, nasty, brutish and short” campaign: still, some good must come of it.

  • Hugh Muir is the Guardian’s executive editor, Opinion

  • Guardian Newsroom: Election results special
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