British ruling party heading for historic defeat

June 10, 2024 06:00

Britain’s ruling Conservative Party is heading for a historic defeat in the general election on July 4, with voters angry over a declining health system and other public services, a weak economy, record immigration and too many changes in leadership during its 14 years in power.

A You Gov poll published in early June gave the opposition Labour Party 422 seats, up from 202 now, the Conservatives 140, down from 365 now, and the centrist Liberal Democrats 48, up from 11.

It would be the Conservatives’ worst result since 1906, when it won only 156 seats, against 397 for the Liberal Party. Britain’s election system, with one seat per constituency, does not faithfully reflect the proportion of votes cast. A party can win more than 10 per cent of the popular vote but no seats in Parliament.

On May 22, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak surprised his own party, and the country as a whole, by declaring the election date as July 4, despite being 20 percentage points behind in the opinion polls. He did not need to hold the election until the end of the year.

So great is the lead of Labour chief Sir Keir Starmer that journalists in Westminster coined this phrase to describe the ease of his victory: “Starmer is walking calmly toward Downing Street (where the Prime Minister lives) carrying a priceless Ming dynasty vase. All he has to do is not drop the vase.”

Since he started campaigning on May 23, Sunak has suffered one blow after another. On May 27, more than 100 prominent business leaders published an open letter supporting Labour in the election. “The economy is beset by instability, stagnation and a lack of long-term focus,” it said. “It is time for a change.” Traditionally, the business community backs the Conservatives.

On June 3, Nigel Farage, a charismatic politician who led the successful campaign for Brexit in 2016, reversed a decision to spend the rest of the year supporting Donald Trump in the United States. Instead, he chose to remain in Britain to lead the far-right Reform UK party and stand as a candidate in the eastern coastal city of Clacton in Essex.

At the last election, it had a Conservative majority of 24,702, but Farage is confident of overturning it. In the Brexit vote, 72 per cent of the electorate in Clacton voted to leave the European Union.
Farage is a polished speaker and popular with anti-Europeans, especially older people. The main platform of Reform UK is “zero immigration”. Current opinion polls put Reform UK at about 15 per cent of the vote, against 17 per cent for the Conservatives.

Then, on June 6, Sunak scored a spectacular own goal by returning early from celebrations in France for the 80th anniversary of the Normandy landings. Veterans of the battle, some over 100, had arrived from the U.S. and Britain. They were warmly praised by all the speakers for saving France and the rest of Europe from Nazism.

So the world was astonished to see standing on the beach where the Allied troops landed President Joe Biden, Olaf Scholz and Emmanuel Macron – and British Foreign Secretary David Cameron, standing in for Sunak.

One Conservative candidate said: “this is an absolute gift to Nigel Farage. I cannot tell you how bad morale is today. This is an absolute catastrophe.”

Immigration is another weak points for the government. It campaigned for Brexit saying that it would enable Britain “to take control of its borders.” The opposite has happened. Net immigration reached a record 764,000 in 2022 and 685,000 in 2023.

The population will reach 70 million by 2026 – increasing the pressure for new homes, school places, hospital beds and railway seats.

Brexit persuaded many people from EU countries to take their skills and capital away from Britain. Since 2016, even more people have entered the country from other parts of the world to replace them. Many are doing jobs previously held by Poles, Czechs, Lithuanians and Greeks.

Another complaint about the Conservatives is instability in leadership. Since they came to power in 2010, there have been five Prime Ministers. One of them, Liz Truss, heldg the office in 2022 for 50 days, the shortest tenure in British history.

Economic growth since 2010 has been weak, according to figures by the Resolution Foundation published last weekend.

“GDP per capita has grown by a mere 4.3 per cent over the past 16 years, compared to 46 per cent the years prior,” it said. “The growing population has masked the UK’s ‘atrocious’ record on productivity (output per worker) which grew by just 0.6 per cent a year in the 2010s. Since the 2008 financial crisis, productivity growth has been the slowest for two centuries,” it said.

If Starmer can avoid dropping the vase, he will make it comfortably to Downing Street. But the task facing him there would test the best advisers of the Ming dynasty.

A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.