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United Kingdom: National Parliament Election, Key Issues, Expectations

On Thursday 4 July, the UK public will be going to the polls for what is set to be an historic election.

The two main parties contesting the election are the Conservative and Unionist Party (~ ECR), currently in government, and the Labour party (S&D) which is currently the official opposition.

After 14 continuous years in power, the Conservatives, led by Rishi Sunak, are widely expected to lose the vast majority of their seats. Most of these seats are expected to go to Labour, but while Labour enjoy higher approval ratings than the Conservatives, they are not especially popular with the public generally.

Polling projections have put the Conservatives’ losses as anything between 210 and 319 seats from their 2019 election total of 365 seats.

The Basics

The UK’s electoral system is known as ‘first past the post’, which doesn’t have any element of proportional representation. Instead, the UK is divided into 650 constituencies each electing exactly one MP in a single round of voting.

This system has mixed popularity, and while the main two parties wish to keep it, almost every other party in the UK wants to change to some form of proportional representation for the lower house of the British Parliament, the House of Commons. One of the reasons for this is at election time the system produces huge swings between the two main parties despite what are often relatively minor changes in support, while limiting the number of seats won by the smaller parties.

As an example, despite getting 12.6% of votes across the country in 2015, UKIP (EFDD at the time) was elected in only one seat.

One of the reasons this election is set to be such an historic event is that a record number of candidates are standing, 4,515 to be precise. In addition to this, voters will be presented with more choice than usual, with no less than five candidates standing in every single constituency.

Who is going to win? It’s widely predicted that the party set to win is the Labour Party. Keir Starmer who leads the party, alongside their satellite party, the Co-operative Party (Coop~S&D) would become Prime Minister with what is expected to be a sweeping majority, partially due to the expected prevalence of tactical voting in this election (more on this later).

The Main Priorities

There are four main issues that are dominating this election: the economy, the National Health Service (NHS), immigration and integrity.

The UK’s economy has struggled in recent years, with the combined effects of COVID, the war in Ukraine and Liz Truss (CON ~ ECR)—prime minister for a record of only 49 days—putting out a mini-budget widely credited with crashing the UK’s economy outright. In light of this, the Conservatives have suffered in the polls, and while the economy has improved since the mini-budget, public opinion still considers the UK to be in a cost-of-living crisis, as energy bills and food prices have not fallen.

Another issue exacerbated by COVID is the state of the NHS in the UK. The NHS is a single-payer healthcare service designed to be free at the point of care. It is operated by the UK government, eliminating the need for UK taxpayers to have health insurance. Staffing issues, under-resourcing compared with demand for services, and strikes due to staff and union claims of low pay and unsafe working conditions, have combined to create a healthcare crisis in the UK.

Immigration has recently made its way to the front of the priorities of many, with arrivals of undocumented immigrants at an all-time high. Many parties have accused the government of losing control of the UK’s sea border, and a plan to send immigrants on planes to Rwanda has been struck down by the European Court of Human Rights. In spite of this, the government has pressed ahead with their plan, and are threatening to leave the European Court of Human Rights if it does not let them proceed. Reform UK (~NI) have been supportive of the Rwanda plan, while the left-leaning opposition parties are firmly against this plan.

Arguably the largest issue this election is integrity in politics. For the last five years UK headlines have been dominated by political scandals, some examples of which have been government ministers breaking their own covid laws, allegations of failing to deal properly with sexual misconduct allegations within government, and most recently, politicians, both Conservative and Labour, investigated by the gambling commission for electoral gambling offences.

The Political Context

So how is this election different to any other? While the UK has been dominated by Labour and the Conservatives since the 1920s, there is a very real chance that the Conservatives could sink to 3rd place, or even 4th place, for the first time in history.

Another contender for forming the official (‘main’) opposition is the Liberal Democrats (RE), led by Ed Davey. This party is the other main beneficiary of the tactical vote this election, with people voting for parties who have the best chance of unseating Conservatives in their constituency. This, alongside Davey being seen as generally less controversial and more popular than the other two main leaders has seen support for the LD’s grow, perhaps in part due to his unorthodox campaign strategy. This would be a turnaround for the Liberal Democrats after their coalition with the Conservatives from 2010–15 proved to be disastrous for their electoral fortunes.

The other contender for forming official opposition this election (though a long shot), is Reform UK, led by Nigel Farage. Farage is a former MEP and political firebrand in the UK, known for his Euroscepticism and anti-immigration rhetoric. The party is running to the right of the Conservatives, mainly campaigning on social issues and immigration. At dissolution of the parliament they had one MP, after a Conservative MP defected to their party, but are hoping to grow their seat total, and maybe even overtake the Conservatives.

Another major change for the UK this time around, and one that is making predictions more complicated, is the new constituency boundaries. Some constituencies have been abolished, while others have been created, many more have changed shape.

Virtually none of the constituencies are the same as they were in 2019. This has opened up the playing field for parties to break into areas where traditionally they would not do well.

Devolved Politics—Different Contexts

Scotland

The United Kingdom is made up of four constituent countries, each with their own unique political climate. Minor parties and regional quirks exist in all of these countries, such as the regionalist parties. In Scotland there is a centre-left separatist party, known as the Scottish National Party (Greens/EFA), who are currently the governing party of Scotland, led by John Swinney. Until recently they essentially had a monopoly on Scottish separatism; however recently the surge in popularity for the left-wing Scottish Green Party (Greens/EFA) and the emergence of Alba (*), led by former SNP leader Alex Salmond, have reduced the SNP’s grip on the separatist movement.


The SNP currently hold the vast majority of seats in Scotland, but with a resurgent Labour party set to take large parts of central Scotland, the SNP seems likely to have a painful night, though this won’t stop them treating the election as a de-facto referendum on independence. The UK government refused to grant Scotland the right to hold a second independence referendum after the one in 2014 failed, so the SNP have pledged that if they win more than half of the Scottish seats this election, they will treat it as a mandate for independence and begin negotiations with the UK government.

Wales

Similarly, Wales has a regionalist party, in the form of the left-wing Plaid Cymru (Greens/EFA). Originally founded as a Welsh-speakers interests party, the platform has grown to a more general left-wing platform, with the party positioned to the left of Labour in Wales. This election they will be hoping to win big in the areas of the country with high concentrations of Welsh-speakers. They were, until recently, in a co-operation agreement with the ruling Labour government in Wales, which broke down following the election of a new controversial First Minister.

The latest YouGov poll showed Labour’s popularity in Wales dropping from 40% at the last Welsh Parliament election to 27% in June. In different circumstances this might have hampered chances for Welsh Labour candidates in this UK election, but latest projections suggest the Conservatives could be wiped off the map in Wales regardless.

England

There are plenty of other parties to look out for in England too. The largest of these is the Green Party of England and Wales (Greens/EFA), who currently have one MP, but are hoping to expand this total to four this election. Another party hoping to retain and gain is the Workers Party of Britain (*), led by George Galloway. He’s known for being a left-wing firebrand, having recently won a by-election in Rochdale after the Labour candidate, who was expected to win easily, was suspended for making antisemitic remarks at a local party meeting.

Also not to be missed are several MPs who are running despite losing support from their parties since 2019, sometimes in marginal constituencies. One example is Jeremy Corbyn (~S&D), a former leader of the Labour party, who is standing a close contest in the seat of Islington North as an independent candidate. The race is set to be a close one, with Corbyn only a few points behind Labour in the seat according to a recent constituency poll.

There are also several localist parties contesting seats around the country. One to watch is a primarily three-way contest in Ashfield between the incumbent Reform candidate Lee Anderson, the only Reform MP in history, Labour, and the localist outfit the Ashfield Independents (*) who came second in 2019 and currently control the local council.

Northern Ireland

There is also Northern Ireland, who have an entirely different political climate to the rest of the UK. There are several parties with some level of relevance going into this election in Northern Ireland, most of whom are divided on the core question of whether Northern Ireland should join the Republic of Ireland or not, with those who oppose this being known as unionists, and those who support it being known as nationalists. One of the main nationalist parties is the centre-left Social Democratic and Labour Party (S&D), who have strong ties to the UK Labour party and Irish Labour party (S&D) and are considered the moderate wing of the nationalist movement in Northern Ireland. The other main party is the left-wing Sinn Féin (LEFT), who are a branch of Sinn Féin in the Republic of Ireland. They are considered to be the more hardline wing of the nationalist movement in Northern Ireland and do not take their seats in the House of Commons, leaving them blank due to their republican beliefs preventing them from swearing allegiance to the Monarch, which is a requirement for MPs to take their seats. Sinn Féin are the larger of the two nationalist parties and are expected to make a few gains this election in the light of their successful outing in the local and Northern Ireland Assembly elections, at the expense of the SDLP.

The main unionist party is the Democratic Unionist Party (~ ECR|NI), a social conservative party with a turbulent history. They are perhaps going into this election with the worst hand of any party, with their former leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, charged with historical sex offences, requiring his deputy to take over as interim leader, one who is at risk of losing his seat.

There are unionist parties both to the left and to the right of the DUP, the more liberal one being the Ulster Unionist Party (ECR), a liberal-conservative party with formerly close ties to the UK Conservative Party. They currently don’t hold any seats but are hoping to regain one or two seats after having lost them in 2017. Finally, to the right of the DUP are the Traditional Unionist Voice (~NI), a party who split from the DUP, with a platform generally to the right of the DUP both socially and economically. They also currently hold no seats in parliament but are hoping to capitalise on the DUP’s difficult situation to gain a seat.

Politics in Northern Ireland are marked by religious sectarianism, with the nationalist parties tending to be catholic and the unionist parties tending to be protestant. The Alliance Party (RE), a party with close ties to the UK Liberal Democrats, are a party that is neutral on the constitutional question of Northern Ireland and try to portray themselves as a non-sectarian alternative to the unionist and nationalist parties. They currently hold one seat but are hoping to gain one or two more.


Finally, a tradition in the UK is that all the major parties do not stand against the Speaker of the House of Commons in their seat, as the speaker is meant to be a politically neutral role. As a result of this, the Speaker is almost certainly guaranteed to keep their seat, in this case in the constituency of Chorley.

This election is set to be historic in UK terms, there’s no doubt about that. Polls close at 11 PM (CEST) on Thursday 4 July. There will be an exit poll released immediately, but final results will trickle in through the night. Europe Elects follows the election and the development in our special UK election page and in our social media.

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