House of Commons

UK General Election 2024

Understand the electoral process, the parties and the issues 

About-Britain.com -  A thematic guide to the UK





Index :  The electoral process Choices in 2024
The parties and issues The result and after


The next British General Election will take place on July 4th 2024.
Britain's voters will vote in a parliamentary election, known as a General Election. Barring a huge surprise the Conservatives, in power since 2010, will suffer a heavy defeat. According to all the opinion polls in early 2024, Labour will win by a landslide, sending the Conservatives back to the Opposition benches for at least five years.
     For the Conservatives, re-elected in 2019 under Boris Johnson with an overwhelming majority, defeat five years later will be a very bitter pill to swallow. But it will be the inevitable consequence of the wear and tear of power and the splintering of the party, whose internal divisions have been amplified since Prime Minister David Cameron's unfortunate decision to hold a referendum on Brexit back in 2016.
     In theory Brexit will not be an election issue in 2024; it has already deeply damaged both the Conservative and Labour parties, which both remain  divided on the subject and wish to avoid reopening the wounds of recent years. As Boris Johnson said, "Brexit is done." End of story.... But Brexit isn't completely "done", and what's done can be undone; so it's inevitable that Brexit will remain, as the expression goes, "the elephant in the room" (or in former Labour leader Neil Kinnock's words "the mammoth in the broom closet"), a subject that will invisibly underpin much of the political debate in the months leading up to the election.
    As an early example of both main parties' determination to keep anything related to Brexit out of discussions,  when the EU's Ursula von der Leyen suggested  in April setting up a youth-mobility agreement between the EU and the UK, the idea was immediately rejected by both the prime minister Rishi Sunak, and by opposition leader Keir Starmer.

The voting system

    In the United Kingdom, the voting system has not evolved. The historic "first past the post" system  is still used, as in a horse race where the winner is simply the first to cross the line, even if it is only by the tiniest of margins and with only a relative majority (also called a plurality). There is only one round, and there is no proportional representation. 

The system was very appropriate at a time when there were only two or three major parties on the political scene, because it favours big parties to the detriment of the smaller ones. Consequently it is an electoral system that is less well suited to a political landscape with many small parties.

     The advantages of this voting system are said to be that it favours the formation of stable governments, prevents the splintering of large parties into smaller ones, and discourages the creation of cult parties based on personal ambitions.

     The main disadvantages are that the system allows power to alternate between two major parties, making it very difficult for any other party to break through. Furthermore, without any element of proportional representation, it regularly allows governments to be formed with the support of less than 40% of voters, leaving another third of the electorate with virtually no representation in parliament.

     Over the last few years, and in particular at by-elections, there has been a growing trend towards 'tactical voting'. Thanks to local social networks and the Internet, more and more voters are voting for the candidate who is best placed to beat the candidate of the party they don't want. As a result, since 2019 the Conservatives have won just one seat in by-elections, but have lost 11, including in strongholds that previously looked unassailable.

    At the 2024 general election, the success or failure of tactical voting campaigns in key constituencies (voting areas) will determine the extent of the Conservatives' predicted defeat.


The choices in 2024

    As has been the case for the past century, most British voters will choose between the country's two major historic parties, the Conservatives on the right and Labour on the left. In Scotland and Wales, the polls will be largely triangular or even four-sided with the presence of nationalist candidates and the centrist Liberal Democrats (LD); the polls will also be triangular or four-sided in England, in constituencies where the LD and/or the Greens have a strong presence.

 In Northern Ireland, the election will mainly pit the Unionist parties in favour of keeping Ulster within the United Kingdom against the Nationalists in favour of Irish reunification.

 A new far-right party, Reform, will be trying to gain a foothold in some constituencies; and everywhere the list of candidates for the post of Member of Parliament will be completed by a handful of independent candidates, ranging from the historic Official Monster Raving Loony Party (founded in 1982) to self-styled candidates championing every conceivable cause.

The issues

Apart from Brexit, the elephant in the cupboard, the main issue that seems likely to dominate the debate in the runup to the election is the record of the Conservative Party in government over the past 14 years. Opposition parties will point out their failures - on the economy, on the cost of living, on inflation, on the National Health Service (NHS), on underinvestment in public services in general, on rising inequality, and on the pollution in Britain's rivers.  The Conservatives will prefer to talk about immigration, about Britain's place in the world, about the taxes they have reduced, and how Britain will be better off in the future, under a Conservative government. And many of Britain's voters will believe little of what they hear.


The parties

The Conservatives (Tories)  in 2024

The British Conservative Party, also known as the Tories, is historically a broad-based party, covering the whole of the right of the political spectrum in England. It has been - and to some extent still is - home to all right-wing tendencies, from neo-conservatives to nostalgic nationalists and centre-right social conservatives.

For half a century until 2016, the party's internal conflicts were focused around the issue of Britain's place in Europe; and while the party remained in the hands of the centre-right, for whom Britain's future lay within the EU, dissent always threatened  party unity. It was in order to put an end to this internal dissent that the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, called a national referendum on whether or not Britain should remain in the European Union. With both his government and the Labour opposition in favour of remaining, Cameron never imagined for a moment that the "leavers" would win – which is what happened.

Thus instead of putting an end to the internal divisions within the Conservative Party, the Referendum amplified them. After Cameron's resignation, and until 2019, the party struggled to govern and, above all, was bitterly divided about how to implement the Brexit demanded by "the people" (37% of registered voters).  The radical measures called for by the party's right wing were always watered down or thwarted by ad-hoc alliances between centrist Conservative MPs, unhappy with the referendum result, and opposition MPs. It was not until 2019, with the appointment of Boris Johnson as party leader and thus as Prime Minister, that any breakthrough could be made. 

Riding on a wave of populism and promises, Johnson led the Conservatives, albeit partially abandoned by their electorate and by former centrist MPs, to a landslide victory in the 2019 general election. 

Four and a half years later, the party of populism and promises has lost its shine. While Covid hastened Johnson's political downfall, forcing him to resign as Prime Minister and even as an MP, a succession of scandals involving Conservative MPs, as well as the catastrophic 49 days in office of his successor Liz Truss, have finally shattered the reputation for competence that the party once enjoyed. Appointed in 2022, the current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has done little to boost the fortunes of the Conservative Party, which in the spring of 2024 remains languishing in the opinion polls.

Though the right-wing media, led by the Daily Mail, Daily Express and Daily Telegraph, have maintained their ideological support for the Conservative Party through thick and thin, the British public has not. Rocked by scandals, and seemingly unable to revive the nation's fortunes, the party has lost a great deal of credibility among  middle class voters in rural and suburban areas of southern England where, since 2020, it has lost a series of by-elections in strongholds hitherto considered impregnable.

Thus, the Conservative party that will stand for election in 2024 bears little resemblance to the party that won re-election under David Cameron in 2015, and even to the party that won re-election under Boris Johnson in 2019. Despite the disastrous fallout for the British economy of Liz Truss's seven weeks of neo-conservative government in 2022, despite all the unending problems caused by Brexit, despite inflation, rising poverty, and the general decline in British living standards, the party remains dominated by its right wing, highlighting immigration, the fight against wokeism (social liberalism or liberal socialism), and lower taxes as election themes. This may appeal to  party members, as well to voters attracted by the populist arguments of the far right,  but it will not be enough to win an election.

In April 2024, Dr. Dan Poulter, MP and former health minister, resigned from the Conservatives and joined the Labour Party, telling the Observer newspaper  "It feels to me that the Tory party has gone from being a pragmatic, centrist, centre-right party which focused on and understood the importance of public service and the state to ...  become a nationalist party of the right." Poulter had been a Conservative member of parliament for 14 years.


Reform

    Barring any surprises, the Conservative Party's electoral woes in 2024 will be amplified by a new right-wing populist party called Reform, which emerged in 2021. Actually Reform is the latest metamorphosis of a sovereignist party and of its ultra-populist leader Nigel Farage, who has been trying to force the Conservatives to the right since 1997. It was in 1997 that Farage took control of the small eurosceptic party called UKIP, which he transformed into a war machine to demand a referendum.

   After the victory of the 'out' vote in the Brexit referendum, Farage left UKIP (which still exists today) to form another party, which he called the Brexit Party. The party subsequently changed its name to Reform UK in 2021. It is a party that defends nationalist, libertarian and populist causes. Credited in the polls with up to 10% of the vote at the next election (but with very fluctuating popularity from one constituency to another), it is a party that will take votes from the Conservatives on their right.


Labour

The Labour Party has been in the doldrums since its defeat at the 2010 general election, failing to garner support in spite of the woes of the ruling Conservative Party. Traditionally, the main opposition party benefits from any division or scandal within the governing party in the British Parliament, and in 2015, after five years of unpopular coalition government between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, Labour should have been able to win the election hands down. They failed to do so, notably because of the loss of 40 seats in Scotland to the nationalist party, and a score well below expectations in England.

    However, it was after 2015 that the party experienced its worst years. Following its defeat in the 2015 elections, Labour Party members chose as their new leader the candidate supported by the left wing of the party, Jeremy Corbyn. While the choice of Corbyn was welcomed by militants,  the appointment of the most left-wing leader in the party's history did not allow Labour to take advantage of the Tory party's Brexit woes and in-fighting. To the despair of centre-left voters, Corbyn remained very neutral on Brexit at a time when the Conservative party was tearing itself apart over the issue, and in 2017, Labour lost the general election to the Tories for the third time in a row. Two years later, in 2019, they lost for the fourth time - this time by a wide margin - to a Conservative party boosted by Boris Johnson's promises and populism. Despite the unpopularity of Johnson (who at the time of the election had a popularity rating of just 35%), Labour lost 60 seats, ending with its lowest number of MPs since 1935..

    Since 2020, the party has refocused under the leadership of Sir Keir Starmer, and  its fortunes have revived. A latecomer to politics, Starmer was formerly Director of Public Prosecutions, and a human rights lawyer. Gradually, he has succeeded in rebranding Labour as a social democratic party, thus rebuilding its credibility for many voters who had abandoned it during the Corbyn years.

    Since the meltdowwn of the Conservative party during and after the final months of the Johnson government, Labour has managed to consolidate a comfortable lead of around 20 points in the opinion polls. There is every reason to believe that it will win the autumn 2024 election by a wide margin.

    However, nothing is certain and not everything is clear, especially when it comes to the UK's position with regard to Europe. According to the latest polls, 78% of Labour voters believe that Brexit was a mistake, a view shared by many MPs; but Starmer refuses to commit to any course of action, saying only that Britain will have to repair its relationship with the EU.

    The truth is that Starmer, like the party's strategists, remains terrified of  not winning back the thousands of traditional left-wing voters who  abandoned Labour at the last election, in favour of the anti-European populism of the Conservatives. Without this "Red Wall vote",  and however unpopular the Conservatives may be, Labour will find it far harder to obtain an absolute majority in the next parliament. It is only after the election that Labour's real policy on repairing relations with Europe will become clearer..


The Liberal Democrats

    The Liberal Democratic Party (LD) is the third largest party in British politics. It is the direct descendant of the Whig Party formed at the end of the seventeenth century, which became the Liberal Party in the 19th century and the Liberal Democrat Party in 1988 following its merger with the Social Democratic Party (SDP).   

    At the end of the 20th century, as the Conservatives and Labour disappointed a growing proportion of their electoral base, the LDs began to make inroads, winning 46 seats in the 1997 elections and as many as 62 in 2005. In 2010, the party won over 50 seats, enabling it to choose the next government, as neither the Conservatives nor Labour had a majority on their own.

    To the dismay of many of his more centre-left voters, then leader Nick Clegg chose to enter into coalition with the Conservatives, promising to act as a balancing force against the right wing of the Conservative party. While, objectively, the LDs were able to implement a significant part of their programme during their five years in coalition, they failed on a key promise that was very dear to many voters, namely to abolish the high university tuition fees introduced by the Conservatives. It was a disaster for the party, and in the 2015 elections the LDs were only able to salvage 8  seats in the House of Commons, compared with 57 in the previous parliament.

    As a result, the most Europhile of the major British parties was largely absent from the House of Commons at a time when the issue of Brexit was the focus of much of the political debate in Great Britain. Long before the 2016 referendum, the LDs had been proclaiming loud and clear that the UK's place was within the European Union; since then, it has been the only major party to have firmly maintained this pro-European stance, advocating that the country realign with the Single Market and rejoin the Union as soon as possible.

        In the spring of 2024, with opinion polls showing that the proportion of Britons who want the country to rejoin the EU now far exceeds (by around 15 points) those who want to continue with Brexit, the party is focusing its electoral efforts on rural and suburban areas in the south of England and on young voters, who are far more Europhile than older voters..


The result, and what will happen next

    According to forecasts (which will probably change as the election draws nearer), Labour will win enough seats to form a government on their own following the next general election.

The Conservatives, at rock bottom in the polls, will lose two-thirds of their seats, leaving them with a historically low number of MPs in the next parliament; then, already largely under the influence of its right wing, the party will move even further to the right under a new leader, perhaps Suella Bravermann.... or Liz Truss, or even Nigel Farage, who may rejoin the party with or without the Reform Party.

 As for the Liberal Democrats, a further rightward lurch by the Conservatives will finally allow them to position themselves as the only party to occupy the broad socio-liberal  centre of the political spectrum, capable of serving as an effective opposition to Labour (or the Conservatives) after the next election, scheduled for 2029.

 Depending on the scale of Labour's victory, and the number of seats won by the LDs, the thorny issue of the UK's relationship with the European Union will be addressed with greater or lesser urgency and determination.

 While it is unlikely that the UK will rejoin the EU before the end of the next parliament, a de facto reintegration - complete or partial - into many European structures, including the Single Market, cannot be ruled out.

One of the few things about which one can be sure, is that the next British government will have a very hard job to do.  



Andrew Rossiter



Further reading.  What have 14 years of Conservative Rule done for Britain?, by Sam Knight in the New Yorker magazine, March 25 2024. (The New Yorker allows one free article, otherwise this article is behind a paywall). A long read, but an excellent overview of the past fourteen years in British politics.

Photo top of page. The chamber of the House of Commons, 

Cette page en français : Elections législatives en Grande Bretagne, 2024

Liz Truss
Rishi Sunak, British Prime Minister until 5th July 2024.





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