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UK poised for political shift as Labour sets sights on historic election victory

Workmen put the red carpet in place on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street. Tuesday, April 9, 2024.
Workmen put the red carpet in place on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street. Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Copyright Alberto Pezzali/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Alberto Pezzali/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved
By Mared Gwyn Jones in London
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Opinion polls suggest Labour could win the biggest majority of any post-war government.

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The United Kingdom is heading to the polls on Thursday to elect 650 new members to the House of Commons, with opinion polls painting a picture of Labour dominance few would have thought possible in the previous vote in 2019.

That election saw the then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson secure a solid Conservative majority in parliament and clinch a symbolic mandate to “get Brexit done”. He did so by winning over major Labour heartlands in the traditionally working class "red belt" of Northern England and the Midlands.

The UK has since formally exited the European Union - but life after Brexit has been cruel for the Conservative party.

Now, Labour and its leader, Sir Keir Starmer, are hoping to win back the pro-Brexit voters they lost in 2019, while Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservative party could score the worst election result in its 200-year history.

Some polls put Labour at a staggering 20 percentage points ahead of the Conservatives, meaning Keir Starmer could become prime minister with a majority of over 200 seats, the biggest of any post-war government.

The Conservatives meanwhile face electoral wipe-out in some parts of the country, and Sunak could become the first sitting prime minister in history to lose his seat.

A Conservative crisis

Support for the Conservatives - who have governed for the past 14 years under five different leaders - has been steadily on the decline since 2021, when investigations were launched into lockdown-breaking parties at 10 Downing Street enabled by Prime Minister Johnson.

Following Johnson’s downfall came a brief and unsuccessful stint at the helm for Liz Truss, whose ‘mini budget’ saw the pound plummet to a 37-year low. Sunak, a former investment banker, quickly stepped into her shoes, but judging from polling has failed to convince voters he is the right man to get the UK’s economy back on track.

As well as the economy, housing and the national health service, migration has been one of the hottest topics on the campaign trail. Sunak has tried to rope in voters concerned about the number of irregular migrants reaching British shores by making his controversial plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda conditional on his re-election.

But the Rwanda plan has sparked backlash and divided the nation, with even the Supreme Court ruling it unlawful. Its advocates have been frustrated by the fact no flights have taken off two years after the plan was initially announced.

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak walks back into 10 Downing Street in London Wednesday, May 22, 2024, after he announced that he is to call a General Election for July 4.
Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak walks back into 10 Downing Street in London Wednesday, May 22, 2024, after he announced that he is to call a General Election for July 4. Kin Cheung/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved

He formally called the election in the pouring rain in Downing Street as the song "Things Can Only Get Better” - famously used for Tony Blair’s landslide election victory in 1997 - blasted in the background.

A raft of PR gaffes has since followed. Sunak faced a wave of condemnation when he left a ceremony to mark the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings early to hold a TV interview, inviting accusations he was out of touch with British values.

More recently, five Conservative party insiders - including Sunak’s bodyguard - have faced allegations they betted on the date of the election just before it was announced by the prime minister himself, seen as a further blow to public trust in the party.

Will Labour landslide?

Although a Labour victory has looked certain for months, sources close to the party say there is nervousness that such a comfortable and steady lead in the polls could make voters complacent and work to their detriment.

But with such a commanding lead, it looks almost certain that they will be in government in a few days’ time.

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The main thrust of their manifesto is to tackle the cost-of-living crisis by “creating wealth” for working-class people. But the Conservatives have immediately attacked their proposals, claiming Labour will inevitably raise taxes in the event of slow growth.

Other Labour promises include slashing the waiting lists of the National Health Service, building 300,000 new homes a year to tackle the housing crisis, and a £24-billion (€28.5-billion) investment in green technologies.

Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer takes a selfie alongside staff during a visit to Window Supply Company in Bathgate, West Lothian, Friday June 21, 2024.
Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer takes a selfie alongside staff during a visit to Window Supply Company in Bathgate, West Lothian, Friday June 21, 2024.Jane Barlow/PA

Starmer has also taken a firm stance on migration by vowing to crack down on human smugglers that traffic migrants illegally across the channel. He also says Labour will cut the level of net migration into the UK, but has not set a specific target (the Conservatives have previously vowed to bring net migration down into the ‘tens of thousands’).

Reform UK and Liberal Democrats eye gains

The election could also see Brexit activist and former Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Nigel Farage enter the House of Commons for the first time. He shocked the nation in early June when he announced he would run in his constituency of Clacton in Essex for his Reform UK party, in what will be his eighth bid to become an MP.

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Farage’s announcement saw Reform UK surge in the polls and close down at the heels of the Conservatives. But even if he manages to clinch around 16% of the vote as some polls suggest, he could still fail to win any seats given the way the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system works. 

Deeply controversial comments made in an interview last week - where he claimed that the West had provoked Russia's invasion of Ukraine - have seen support dip.

“It was obvious to me that the ever-eastward expansion of NATO and the European Union was giving this man (Putin) a reason to his Russian people to say they’re coming for us again, and to go to war,” Farage told BBC’s Panorama.

“We’ve provoked this war,” he added.

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Reform UK Leader Nigel Farage gestures during a meeting while on the general election campaign trail, in Boston, England, Thursday June 27, 2024.
Reform UK Leader Nigel Farage gestures during a meeting while on the general election campaign trail, in Boston, England, Thursday June 27, 2024.Paul Marriott/AP

Farage’s party is proposing a freeze on all “non-essential” immigration, scrapping net-zero targets, and leaving the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which the party calls the “foreign” court in Strasbourg.

Also hoping to emerge from the ashes after blistering losses in the previous election are the Liberal Democrats, who according to some polls could clinch over 60 seats. 

The party previously campaigned to "stop Brexit" and is one of the most enthusiastic supporters of forging closer economic, trade and security ties with the EU. 

The party has set out a four-step plan that involves gradual integration into European programmes and eventually the EU single market. Its leader Ed Davey has said that re-joining the bloc is its ultimate long-term goal.

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