July 17th, 2024

Britain’s Labour on track for a huge majority, exit poll suggests, as voters turn on Conservatives


By Brian Melley And Jill Lawless, The Associated Press on July 4, 2024.

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak looks on as journalists ask him questions, during a visit to Braishfield primary school as part of a Conservative general election campaign event in Hampshire, England, Wednesday July 3, 2024. (Claudia Greco/Pool Photo via AP)

LONDON (AP) – Britain’s Labour Party was headed for a huge majority in Britain’s election on Thursday, an exit poll suggested, against a gloomy backdrop of economic malaise, mounting distrust in institutions and a fraying social fabric.

The poll released moments after voting closed in the parliamentary election indicated that Labour leader Keir Starmer will be the country’s next prime minister.

A jaded electorate looks to have delivered a crushing verdict on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservative Party, which has been in power since 2010.

“Nothing has gone well in the last 14 years,” said London voter James Erskine, who was optimistic for change in the hours before polls closed. “I just see this as the potential for a seismic shift, and that’s what I’m hoping for.”

While the suggested result appears to buck recent rightward electoral shifts in Europe, including in France and Italy, many of those same populist undercurrents flow in Britain. Reform UK leader Nigel Farage has roiled the race with his party’s anti-migrant “take our country back” sentiment and undercut support for the Conservatives, who already faced dismal prospects.

Full results will come in over the next hours.

Hundreds of communities were locked in tight contests in which traditional party loyalties come second to more immediate concerns about the economy, crumbling infrastructure and the National Health Service.

In Henley-on-Thames, about 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of London, voters like Patricia Mulcahy, who is retired, sensed the nation was looking for something different. The community, which normally votes Conservative, may change its stripes this time.

“The younger generation are far more interested in change,” Mulcahy said. “So, I think whatever happens in Henley, in the country, there will be a big shift. But whoever gets in, they’ve got a heck of a job ahead of them. It’s not going to be easy.”

Britain has experienced a run of turbulent years – some of it of the Conservatives’ own making and some of it not – that has left many voters pessimistic about their country’s future. The U.K.’s exit from the European Union followed by the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine battered the economy, while lockdown-breaching parties held by then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his staff caused widespread anger.

Johnson’s successor, Liz Truss, rocked the economy further with a package of drastic tax cuts and lasted just 49 days in office. Rising poverty and cuts to state services have led to gripes about “Broken Britain.”

The first part of the day was sunny in much of the country – favorable weather to get people to the polls.

In the first hour polls were open, Sunak made the short journey from his home to vote at Kirby Sigston Village Hall in his Richmond constituency in northern England. He arrived with his wife, Akshata Murty, and walked hand-in-hand into the village hall, which is surrounded by rolling fields.

The center-left Labour Party led by Keir Starmer has had a steady and significant lead in opinion polls for months, but its leaders have warned against taking the election result for granted, worried their supporters will stay home.

“Change. Today, you can vote for it,” he wrote Thursday on the X social media platform.

A couple of hours after posting that message, Starmer walked hand-in-hand with his wife, Victoria, into a polling place in the Kentish Town section of London to cast his vote. He left through a back door out of sight of a crowd of residents and journalists who had gathered.

Labour has not set pulses racing with its pledges to get the sluggish economy growing, invest in infrastructure and make Britain a “clean energy superpower.”

But nothing has really gone wrong in its campaign, either. The party has won the support of large chunks of the business community and endorsements from traditionally conservative newspapers, including the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sun tabloid, which praised Starmer for “dragging his party back to the center ground of British politics.”

The Conservatives have acknowledged that Labour appears headed for victory.

In a message to voters on Wednesday, Sunak said that “if the polls are to be believed, the country could wake up tomorrow to a Labour supermajority ready to wield their unchecked power.” He urged voters to back the Conservatives to limit Labour’s power.

Former Labour candidate Douglas Beattie, author of the book “How Labour Wins (and Why it Loses),” said Starmer’s “quiet stability probably chimes with the mood of the country right now.”

The Conservatives, meanwhile, have been plagued by gaffes. The campaign got off to an inauspicious start when rain drenched Sunak as he made the announcement outside 10 Downing St. Then, Sunak went home early from commemorations in France marking the 80th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.

Several Conservatives close to Sunak are being investigated over suspicions they used inside information to place bets on the date of the election before it was announced.

Sunak has struggled to shake off the taint of political chaos and mismanagement that’s gathered around the Conservatives.

But for many voters, the lack of trust applies not just to the governing party, but to politicians in general. Farage has leaped into that breach.

The centrist Liberal Democrats and environmentalist Green Party also want to sweep up disaffected voters.

“I don’t know who’s for me as a working person,” said Michelle Bird, a port worker in Southampton on England’s south coast who was undecided about whether to vote Labour or Conservative. “I don’t know whether it’s the devil you know or the devil you don’t.”

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Follow AP’s coverage of elections around the world: https://apnews.com/hub/global-elections/

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