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WORLD | 04-07-2024 14:49

Labour hoping for historic win as UK voters go to the polls

Polls show centre-left Labour party set for its first general election win since 2005 – making Keir Starmer the party's first prime minister since Gordon Brown in 2010.

Britain voted Thursday in a general election that polls predict will hand the opposition Labour party a landslide win and end nearly a decade-and-a-half of Conservative rule.

The first national ballot since Boris Johnson won the Tories a decisive victory in 2019 follows Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's surprise call to hold an election six months earlier than required.

His gamble looks set to backfire spectacularly, with polls throughout the six-week campaign – and for the last two years – pointing to a heavy defeat for his right-wing party.

That would almost certainly put Labour leader Keir Starmer, 61, in Downing Street, as leader of the largest party in parliament.

Centre-left Labour is projected to win its first general election since 2005 by historic proportions, with a flurry of election-eve polls all forecasting its biggest-ever victory.

But Starmer was taking nothing for granted as he urged voters not to stay at home. "Britain's future is on the ballot," he said. "But change will only happen if you vote for it."

 

'People are not satisfied'

Voting began at 7am local time in more than 40,000 polling stations across the country, from church halls, community centres and schools to more unusual venues such as pubs and even a ship.

Sunak was among the early birds, casting his ballot at his Richmond and Northallerton constituency in Yorkshire, northern England. Starmer voted around two hours later in his north London seat, shortly before Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey.

Hannah Tinsley, 26, a trainee lawyer who was voting in south London, said that it was "important" for young people to cast their ballots. 

"The voter turnout for young people compared to older people is really low and obviously, it's going to affect us in the long term," she added.

In Saint Albans, north of London, 22-year-old student Judith said: "I don't really trust any of them but will vote. A lot of my friends feel the same."

Voting closes at 10pm. Broadcasters then announce exit polls, which typically provide an accurate picture of how the main parties have performed.

Results from the UK's 650 constituencies trickle in overnight, with the winning party expected to hit 326 seats – the threshold for a parliamentary majority – as dawn breaks Friday. 

Polls suggest voters will punish the Tories after 14 years of often chaotic rule and could oust a string of government ministers, with talk that even Sunak himself might not be safe.

That would make him the first sitting prime minister not to retain his seat in a general election.

"I appreciate people have frustrations with our party," he conceded on Wednesday. "But tomorrow's vote... is a vote about the future."

 

Endorsements

Sunak, 44, is widely seen as having run a dismal campaign, with anger over his decision to leave D-Day commemorations in France early the standout moment.

In new blows Wednesday, The Sun newspaper switched allegiance to Labour – a key endorsement given the tabloid has backed the winner at every election for several decades.

It follows the Financial Times, The Economist and The Sunday Times as well as traditionally left-leaning papers The Guardian and The Daily Mirror, also endorsing the party.

Meanwhile, three large-scale surveys indicated Labour was on the brink of a record victory, with the Tories set for their worst-ever result and the centrist Liberal Democrats resurgent in third.

YouGov, Focaldata and More in Common all projected Labour would secure at least 430 seats, topping the 418 under Tony Blair in 1997.

The Conservatives could plunge to a record low of less than 127, the trio predicted. 

The Lib Dems were tipped to scoop dozens of seats – up from their current tally of 15 – while Nigel Farage's anti-immigrant Reform UK party was set to win a handful.

YouGov and More in Common both forecast the Brexit figurehead would finally become an MP at the eighth time of asking.

Labour is 99 percent "certain" to secure more seats than when it won a landslide victory in 1997, a major new poll said on Tuesday.

The opposition party is predicted to claim 484 out of a total of 650 seats in what would be an unprecedented victory in modern British history, pollster Survation said.

The prediction is the latest in a series of so-called MRP polls – which use large national samples to forecast results for every UK constituency – that estimate Labour will win emphatically on July 4.

 

 

'Decade of national renewal'

If the predictions are accurate, Sunak will on Friday visit head of state King Charles III to tender his resignation as prime minister. 

Starmer will meet the monarch shortly after to take up his invitation to head the next government – and become prime minister.

The Labour leader will then travel to Downing Street – the office and residence of British leaders – where he would be expected to deliver a speech before making ministerial appointments.

It would cap a remarkable political rise for the former human rights lawyer and chief prosecutor, first elected an MP in 2015.

He has promised a "decade of national renewal" but faces a daunting task revitalising creaking public services and a flatlining economy.

 

Key issues at stake

Here are some key issues at stake in the UK general election on Thursday:

Will jaded voters turn out?

The main opposition Labour party is widely predicted to win and has been determined not to take any risks, making for a lacklustre election campaign.

For the past two years, polling has suggested that Labour is 20 points ahead of the Conservatives, and no amount of campaigning has managed to shift the dial.

But if that indicates a desire for change after 14 years of Tory government, there does not appear to be much enthusiasm for Labour's plans.

Indeed, Labour has repeatedly warned that it does not have a "magic wand" to change the country overnight.

The apathy extends to both leaders, with 72 percent having an unfavourable opinion of Tory leader Rishi Sunak and 51 percent of Labour's Keir Starmer, according to a YouGov poll this month.

That has prompted questions about whether voters will turn out in large numbers spurred on by the promise of change or remain at home jaded by years of chaos and no great love for party leaders. 

Labour figures have made no secret of their concerns surrounding voter apathy, with dozens of seats closely contested and up for grabs.

Turnout (67.3 percent in 2019) will provide an indicator of voters' distrust of their political class, and a challenge for the next government.

Lucky number eight for Farage?

An unexpected addition to the campaign, Nigel Farage – the Brexit figurehead who has now become the spokesperson of hard-right, anti-immigration views – entered the race as the leader of Reform UK.

Despite a surge in the polls, the UK's first-past-the-post system makes outright victory for the 60-year-old former European parliamentarian and his party unlikely.

If he succeeds at his eighth attempt to get a seat in parliament as the MP for Clacton-on-Sea in east England, Farage – a Donald Trump ally – will have even more visibility.

If he fails, his startup Reform UK party, currently polling around 19 percent, would still play a decisive role in the race between the Tories and Labour in several constituencies.

Tory wipeout?

Several polls suggest the party of Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and Boris Johnson will win fewer seats than the 141 it secured in 1906, in what would be the worst result since its creation in 1834.

Speculation has already started about who would succeed Rishi Sunak to lead the fragmented party. 

It remains to be seen how many big names will save their seats and what direction the party, which was centrist under David Cameron (2010-2015) and then drifted to the right, can take.

In the event of Reform's success, some Tories would not object to an alliance.

Weakened Scottish nationalists?

Nothing seems to be going right for the Scottish National Party (SNP), which has dominated the devolved nation's politics for the last 15 years. 

The surprise resignation of charismatic first minister Nicola Sturgeon in 2023 destabilised the party. Her successor Humza Yousaf only lasted a year.

The left-wing party is still the target of a probe into its finances in which Sturgeon's husband was implicated and does not have a viable strategy to deliver independence, a fight that was revived by Brexit but blocked by London.

First Minister John Swinney insists that winning in a majority of Scotland's 59 UK parliamentary constituencies would be a green light for him to launch fresh negotiations on another referendum with the new government in London.

The SNP currently holds 43 seats. But Labour looks set to use its national momentum to reassert its dominance in Scotland. July 4 promises to be the first electoral test for the pro-independent movement's difficulties.

Return of the Lib Dems?

Ed Davey has run an offbeat campaign, gliding down a waterslide, falling off a paddleboard, roasting marshmallows, building sandcastles, bungee jumping and even Zumba dancing. 

His stunts and policies alike have set out to carve a niche for his Liberal Democrat party while Sunak and Starmer duel, Farage returns and Labour moves back to the centre ground.

The Lib Dems' rise to around 12 percent in polls and their strong presence in southern England could win them up to 67 seats, according to one YouGov poll, up from 11 in 2019. 

Such a victory would be comparable to the party's breakthrough in 2010, when it governed with the Conservatives, and would give strength to its pro-European and climate-centred policies.

 

UK general election: a guide

House of Commons

Voting is taking place for all 650 MPs in the lower chamber of parliament, each representing a constituency or seat.

A total of 543 seats are in England and 57 in Scotland, with 32 in Wales and 18 in Northern Ireland.

There are 4,515 candidates this year – a record.

The increase is down to hard-right Reform UK's decision to end its 2019 promise not to stand against the Conservatives, and more Green party hopefuls.

In all, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's Tories are fielding candidates in 635 seats, with 631 for Keir Starmer's Labour and 630 for the Liberal Democrats, led by Ed Davey.

Reform UK, led by Nigel Farage, has 609 with 629 for Carla Denyer and Adrian Ramsay's Greens. The remainder are running for smaller parties or as independents.

First-past-the-post

Electors vote once for a candidate in their constituency, marking a cross on a ballot paper. 

Voters have to be registered, over 18, and either a British, Irish or qualifying Commonwealth citizen, resident in the UK or registered as an overseas voter.

Prisoners and members of the unelected upper chamber of parliament, the House of Lords, cannot vote.

Ballots are counted immediately after polling ends, with the results declared from late evening into July 5.

An exit poll, commissioned by UK broadcasters BBC, Sky News and ITV News, is published at 2100 GMT when polls close, based on interviews by IPSOS at 133 polling stations across the UK.

The survey of voter behaviour is seen as an accurate indicator of the result.

The UK general election uses the first-past-the-post system, which means the candidate and party with the most votes wins.

Majority

For an overall majority, a party has to secure at least 326 seats. 

But in reality the figure is lower, as the Speaker – an MP who is by convention elected unopposed in his or her constituency – and their three deputies – also MPs – do not vote in parliament.

MPs from the pro-Irish nationalist Sinn Fein party do not take up their seats in the UK parliament because they do not recognise British sovereignty over Northern Ireland.

As head of state, the monarch – currently King Charles III – nominates the leader of the biggest party in parliament as prime minister.

The next biggest party becomes His Majesty's Official Opposition, with a Shadow Cabinet of MPs as counterparts to government ministers.

The leader of the opposition goes head-to-head with the prime minister in parliament every week when parliament is sitting.

There is a hung parliament if no party has an overall majority. The biggest party may decide to form a minority government, requiring the support of other parties to pass legislation.

Alternatively, it can negotiate with one or more smaller parties to govern as a formal coalition, as happened in 2010 when the Conservatives ruled with the Liberal Democrats.

Function

MPs scrutinise and vote on proposals from the government, and can sit on parliamentary committees to study the work of the executive as a whole or specific issues.

Not all policy and proposed legislation is a matter for the UK parliament in Westminster. Areas such as health, transport, environment and housing are devolved to lawmakers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

2019

At the last general election, held on December 12, 2019, Boris Johnson's Conservatives were runaway winners with 365 seats, with Labour on 202.

The Scottish National Party won 48, followed by the Liberal Democrats on 11. 

Northern Ireland's pro-UK Democratic Unionist Party secured eight seats, with Sinn Fein on seven, and Welsh nationalists Plaid Cymru on four.

 

– TIMES/AFP

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