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What to know about the U.K. election, with Labour forecast to knock out Conservatives

Labour leader Keir Starmer gives a speech during a visit to Hitchin, in Hertfordshire, England, while on the election campaign trail on Monday.
Stefan Rousseau
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PA Images via Reuters
Labour leader Keir Starmer gives a speech during a visit to Hitchin, in Hertfordshire, England, while on the election campaign trail on Monday.

LONDON — July 4 may be Independence Day in the United States, but it’s Election Day this year in the United Kingdom. On Thursday, British voters will elect a new prime minister and Parliament — and polls suggest it will be a landslide.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's Conservative Party is forecast to lose big. He may even become the first sitting prime minister to lose his own seat in parliament. And the opposition Labour Party is expected to form the next British government.

It’s the opposite of what’s happening in other parts of Europe, like France, where Marine Le Pen’s far-right party has just won the first round of legislative elections.

Who is running?

The U.K. political landscape is dominated by two main parties: the center-right Conservatives and the center-left Labour Party. The Conservatives' leader is Rishi Sunak, who has served as British prime minister since October 2022 and is running for reelection. Labour is led by Keir Starmer, head of the main opposition party since April 2020.

There are also a handful of smaller parties, including the centrist Liberal Democrats led by Ed Davey, the environmentalist Green Party led by Carla Denyer and Adrian Ramsay, and the far-right Reform UK party led by Nigel Farage.

Conservatives look headed for wipeout

The Conservative Party, also known as the Tories, has governed the U.K., with a series of different prime ministers, for 14 years. It often considers itself Britain’s “natural party of government.” That’s because the party has dominated politics and has led the government more frequently than any other party in the U.K. for the past century.

But polls show the Conservatives could lose more than two-thirds of the parliamentary seats they currently hold. It’s a dramatic shift from the last general election in 2019, when the Conservatives and then-leader Boris Johnson won by a huge margin promising to finish Britain's exit from the European Union.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer (with back to camera) take part in the BBC's prime ministerial debate, in Nottingham, England, on June 26.
Phil Noble / AP
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AP
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer (with back to camera) take part in the BBC's prime ministerial debate, in Nottingham, England, on June 26.

Johnson’s three years in office were tumultuous, ending with the “partygate” scandal. That's when it emerged that his ministers and other staff threw secret parties in government and Conservative Party offices and gardens while the country was under COVID-19 lockdown.

In 2022, the Conservatives’ next leader, Prime Minister Liz Truss, sent financial markets into meltdown with a disastrous economic budget. Her time in office was so short — 49 days — that it was compared by a tabloid newspaper to the shelf life of a head of lettuce. The lettuce outlasted the prime minister, and Sunak took office vowing to “fix" the mistakes of his predecessor.

Sunak was Britain’s third prime minister in just under two months. Despite his efforts, polls show that Sunak — a 44-year-old former banker and the country's richest prime minister ever — has become one of the most unpopular politicians in the country, with an approval rating of just 18%.

Sunak has pledged, if his party is reelected, to build more homes, ease taxes for the self-employed and follow through on a controversial plan to deport some asylum-seekers to Rwanda — no matter where they're originally from.

Polly Toynbee, a columnist for the Guardian newspaper, says that voters are motivated by anger toward the Conservatives and that this election has a “revenge feeling to it.”

She says the Conservatives have long lost their image as the “dull, solid, conventional” party. “They’ve become the radical revolutionaries in recent years, and their revolution has been a catastrophe,” Toynbee says.

Labour looks likely to win by a landslide

Labour appears to be benefitting from the Conservatives’ downfall. This would be Labour's first national election victory since under Tony Blair in 2005.

Labour is campaigning to be the party of “change” with the message that it will put an end to what it calls the “chaos” of the Conservative government. It has also pledged to improve relations with Europe, tax private school fees and ban the sale of gas and diesel cars by 2030.

Under Starmer's leadership, the party has moved to the center, stressing it will be the party of economic responsibility — long thought of as a more Conservative message.

Starmer's majority in the polls is “gravity-defying,” says Gabriel Pogrund, political reporter at the Sunday Times. But, Pogrund says, this is less about enthusiasm for Starmer and more about a rejection of the Conservatives.

“There's not that much of the love or passion for him,” Pogrund says. “Starmer has tapped into sentiment against the Conservatives.”

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Who is Starmer, the candidate leading polls to be the next prime minister?

Labour leader Keir Starmer, 61, is a human rights lawyer, a knight, and was rumored to be the inspiration, in the late 1990s, for actor Colin Firth’s brooding character in the Bridget Jones movies. He also served as a legal adviser to police in Northern Ireland, after the Good Friday Peace Agreement. And he later became England’s top prosecutor.

Labour leader Keir Starmer makes tea for supporters on Tuesday in Nottingham, United Kingdom. Maintaining a large lead over the Conservatives, Starmer prioritizes his closing campaign efforts to win back voters in areas that were once Labour's traditional strongholds.
Christopher Furlong / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Labour leader Keir Starmer makes tea for supporters on Tuesday in Nottingham, United Kingdom. Maintaining a large lead over the Conservatives, Starmer prioritizes his closing campaign efforts to win back voters in areas that were once Labour's traditional strongholds.

Starmer's namesake is Keir Hardie, a Scottish trade unionist who founded the Labour Party in 1900. Hardie never became prime minister. In fact, only three Labour leaders have won a general election in the U.K. since World War II. Starmer is hoping his cautious approach will turn his party’s fortunes around.

“There's this utter relentlessness and ruthlessness in Keir Starmer about winning. He does not want to be another of those leaders who've lost,” says Baldwin.

What role, if any, do the royals play?

King Charles III is the U.K.'s head of state, while the prime minister serves as its head of government. The British royals’ power is more ceremonial than political. As citizens, they’re eligible to vote. But in practice, they don’t do so.

When a prime minister decides to call what's known as a snap election, she or he formally asks the monarch to dissolve Parliament. That’s the start of a six-week campaign season.

After ballots are counted in an election, the monarch invites the leader of the party that’s won the most seats in the House of Commons to become prime minister and form a government. That’s likely to be Starmer, and it’s likely to happen Friday.

The king also delivers a speech at the official State Opening of Parliament, which is scheduled for July 17. New lawmakers will actually be sworn in more than a week earlier though, on July 9, and elect a new speaker of the House of Commons then.

Small parties are gaining more support

This election has also seen the rise of smaller parties, including the centrist Liberal Democrats, the far-right Reform and the Greens. Apathy with the two main parties is high. A recent poll from the Financial Times showed that combined support for the country's two main parties is now at only 63% — an all-time low since the two-party system emerged after World War I.

Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey with parliamentary candidate for St. Ives Andrew George (left), during a visit to Sennen in Cornwall, England, while on the election campaign trail on Tuesday.
Matt Keeble / PA Images via Reuters
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PA Images via Reuters
Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey with parliamentary candidate for St. Ives Andrew George (left), during a visit to Sennen in Cornwall, England, while on the election campaign trail on Tuesday.

Anger over both main parties' support for Israel has also boosted the popularity of pro-Palestinian independent candidates during Israel's war in Gaza. Like President Biden’s Democrats, Starmer’s Labour Party has seen a significant drop in support from some of its previously loyal supporters. One recent poll, by Survation and the Labour Muslim Network, suggests British Muslim support for the Labour Party has halved since the last election in 2019. The number of independent candidates has more than doubled since that time.

As the far-right surges elsewhere in Europe, it could see a smaller rise in Britain

Progressives and moderates across Europe are alarmed by the rise of the far right, as right-wing nationalist populist parties have performed well in other recent European elections such as in France and for the EU Parliament.

Farage’s far-right Reform party currently holds no seats in British Parliament. It may be less popular in Britain than the far-right in France, but it is polling in the double digits and looks likely to split the right-wing vote in the U.K. — and help hand a broader victory to the center-left.

One reason Reform hasn't made the same strides as some European peers is that the mainstream Conservative Party has been co-opting far-right messages in recent years, says former Conservative lawmaker Rory Stewart.

“The [Conservative] party has increasingly pushed towards the right. It hasn't quite got to the state the Republicans are in,” Stewart says. “But they've brought in ludicrous, irresponsible figures like Boris Johnson. We sort of reached peak populism with the Brexit debate.”

Which brings up another factor: Brexit.

“In all these other countries, the radical right is a noisy voice but has never been tested in power,” says John Burn-Murdoch, chief data reporter at the Financial Times. “Whereas Brexit in the U.K. is seen as radical right politics having been implemented. And people can now say, maybe that wasn't such a good idea after all.”

If Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party is elected in France, the U.K. could benefit from looking more stable in comparison, says Baldwin, Starmer’s biographer.

“It is possible that Britain could become a haven for stability and investors fleeing populist regimes elsewhere, including America possibly,” he says.

Whatever happened to Brexit?

Britain’s 2016 vote to exit the European Union dominated British politics for years. But the conversation has shifted now.

Polls show the economy — including the rising cost of living and housing — is the top issue for most voters, followed by health. Concerns about immigration peaked around the time of the Brexit referendum, but have since receded somewhat.

Dominic Watters, a single dad and founder of the Food is Care campaign, poses for a photo outside his home in Canterbury, England, June 10. Since calling an election, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has campaigned saying the economy is turning a corner, inflation is down and things are looking up. But millions across the U.K. still feel the squeeze from high food, energy and housing prices.
Kin Cheung / AP
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AP
Dominic Watters, a single dad and founder of the Food is Care campaign, poses for a photo outside his home in Canterbury, England, June 10. Since calling an election, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has campaigned saying the economy is turning a corner, inflation is down and things are looking up. But millions across the U.K. still feel the squeeze from high food, energy and housing prices.

Brexit itself, as a voting issue, has “completely dropped off the radar,” says Burn-Murdoch.

This first post-Brexit election feels “boring” to some

After years of political drama, this election race has actually been dull at times, analysts say. Some are concerned about the possibility of a low turnout.

Both Sunak and Starmer are less colorful personalities than their respective parties' former leaders, says Stewart, a former Conservative Cabinet member who has since resigned from the party.

“In the last election, we had a right-wing populist in the form of Boris Johnson, and we had a left-wing figure called Jeremy Corbyn — I think the U.S. equivalent would be like Bernie Sanders,” Stewart says. “Fast-forward to today, and we’ve got an election between two very centrist, pretty indistinguishable people.”

He says it’s a contest between “a boring lawyer against a boring banker."

But that may not be such a bad thing for a country fed up with years of political turmoil, says Toynbee, the Guardian columnist.

“Boring looks quite good after Boris [Johnson] and Liz Truss,” she says.

What the next prime minister would inherit

If, as polls predict, Starmer moves into the prime minister’s residence at London’s 10 Downing Street, he'll be inheriting a state with public services that have been hobbled by more than a decade of budget cuts and Conservative government-imposed austerity measures.

One economist says Britain is experiencing its biggest wage squeeze since the early-1800s Napoleonic Wars. A greater share of British children now live in poverty, according to the United Nations, than in almost any other wealthy country.

Wait times for doctors’ appointments in the National Health Service have hit record highs. Health care workers are frequently on strike and large numbers of them are leaving to work abroad for higher pay. Hundreds of public school buildings renovated with cheaper, weaker materials were forced to close last year because their ceilings are crumbling.

People hold British Medical Association branded placards calling for better pay on a picket line outside St. Thomas' Hospital in central London on Jan. 3, on the first day of a strike.
Justin Tallis / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
People hold British Medical Association branded placards calling for better pay on a picket line outside St. Thomas' Hospital in central London on Jan. 3, on the first day of a strike.

Last year, Sunak scrapped an over-budget, behind-schedule project that would have belatedly connected parts of England with the type of high-speed rail service that’s long been the norm in continental Europe.

Starmer would also inherit barren government coffers and has been hesitant to make promises about spending. On the campaign trail, he has sought to manage expectations, saying things aren’t going to get better overnight.

“There’s no magic wand that we can wave the day after the election, and fix all the country’s problems,” Starmer recently told the U.K.'s ITV. “And nobody would believe us if we said there is.”

NPR correspondent Lauren Frayer contributed to this report from London.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Fatima Al-Kassab
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
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