Home News Thursday briefing: What’s at stake in the UK election

Thursday briefing: What’s at stake in the UK election


Britain holds a general election today, with a campaign that shares the same hallmarks as others in Europe and America: a disillusioned electorate eager to reject the status quo, a discredited government, and a hint of populism – this time represented by insurgent candidate Nigel Farage.

But Britain is likely to be an outlier in this election. While voters in other countries are moving rightward, British voters are expected to throw out the Conservative-led government after 14 years in power and support the center-left Labour Party. In today’s newsletter, I’ll explain why Britain is taking a straight path while other countries are taking a detour.

The Conservative Party (Tories) has been in power for a long time, starting with David Cameron’s rise to power in 2010. The country has been turbulent, with severe budget cuts following the 2008 financial crisis, the 2016 Brexit referendum, the coronavirus pandemic, and a flurry of prime ministers. For many, the Tories have become a circus that needs to leave town.

Boris Johnson was ousted amid a series of scandals. (Among other things, he threw parties during his self-imposed coronavirus lockdown.) Liz Truss lasted less than 50 days in office after financial markets strongly opposed her proposed tax cuts. The current prime minister, Rishi Sunak, steadied the ship but failed to give restless voters enough reasons to keep their party in power.

Beyond the ongoing drama, Labour politicians claim the Conservatives have broken Britain: Spending cuts, they say, have left the country’s much-vaunted National Health Service in tatters, leading to overcrowded emergency rooms and months-long waits for elective surgery.

Other experts point to Brexit as slowing trade and hobbling economic growth. While Britain’s post-pandemic rebound has been as rapid as its European neighbors, the economy has since stagnated and public debt has soared. (These charts, by my colleagues Josh Holder and Ademola Bello, show How has the UK changed since the Conservatives came to power in 2010?.

The Conservatives are struggling even with their own priorities: Immigration has surged since Brexit. Part of the reason is refugees from Ukraine and Hong Kong. But the influx has also been driven by large numbers of migrants from South Asia and Africa, many of whom come to study at university or to be recruited as nurses or doctors by the understaffed National Health Service. In addition to these documented arrivals, thousands of asylum seekers have tried to cross the English Channel on unseaworthy boats.

Conservative leaders have used Brexit as a tool to reduce immigration, saying it would cut the number of arrivals. Sunak has vowed to “stop the boats from coming in.” He spent months securing parliamentary passage of a legally challenged policy that would have sent some asylum seekers on one-way flights to Rwanda. But many voters no longer see the Conservatives as having credibility on the issue.

Labour has vowed to curb immigration by tightening policing at Britain’s borders. (It will freeze flights to Rwanda, calling the move costly and inefficient.) Beyond that, however, it’s no accident that the party’s priorities don’t seem all that different from those of the government.

On a range of issues, Labour has been careful not to break away from the Conservatives. Labour has not proposed big tax increases. Labour has vowed not to significantly increase spending unless Britain cuts its runaway public deficit. Labour has scaled back its ambitious plans to curb climate change. Labour will continue to provide British military support for Ukraine’s war with Russia.

Having rejected the Conservatives not for the substance of their policies but for their poor governance, Labour hopes to win over voters tired of Tory rule without scaring off those who distrust the “tax and spend” left – especially former leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Polls suggest the plan is working. Labour has led the Conservatives in opinion polls by double digits for more than 18 months. Keir Starmer, the current Labour leader, has positioned himself as a viable alternative to Sunak — an agent of change but by no means a left-wing revolutionary.

If there is an ideological struggle in this election, it is one on the right. Farage, a populist radical who ran on a platform of Brexit, is now leading an anti-immigration party, Reform UK, that is stealing votes from the Conservatives.

Under the electoral rules of British politics, the Reform Party is unlikely to win seats in parliament. But it could split right-wing votes, deepen the Conservatives’ defeat at the hands of Labour and perhaps even split the Conservative Party.

Farage is an ally of Donald Trump and his populist challenge echoes not only Trump’s movement in the United States but also the gains made by far-right parties in France and Germany.

In this respect at least, the UK is not an exception.

Even if you don’t know all about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, you’ve probably heard its finale, “Ode to Joy,” written 200 years ago with the same techniques you can hear in Taylor Swift’s hits. But it’s more than just a good song.

Life experience: Robert Towne won an Oscar for writing Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Died at the age of 89.

Conversation starters

Today, competitive eaters will compete in Nathan’s Famous International Hot Dog Contest, an Independence Day tradition.

Most of these would-be champions are not professionals, but enthusiastic amateurs. Some fill their bellies with large amounts of food or liquids. They might use the Solomon method—think King Solomon—which involves breaking a dog in half before eating it. It could just be a matter of willpower: The body doesn’t want to eat 72 hot dogs, But victory is near.

That’s all for today. See you tomorrow. – Dan

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