What we learned from the UK's general election that will shape politics over the coming years (2024)

LONDON (AP) — The U.K. has its first change in government in 14 years after the Labour Party won a landslide victory early Friday in a general election that saw the Conservative Party suffer its biggest defeat ever.

The new government faces huge challenges, including fixing the country’s sluggish economic and social malaise resulting in part from the U.K’s exit from the European Union, the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and several Conservative Party scandals.

Here are some things we learned:

A fraying two-party system

For the past 100 years, Britain’s two main political parties have garnered the vast majority of votes. In 1951, for example, the Conservatives and Labour netted nearly 97% of the vote combined.

In the decades since, the trend has been clear — down. This election marked a new low, with the two parties combined barely able to muster 60%.

Despite that relatively low share of the vote, Prime Minister Keir Starmer will be able to govern with a massive majority in the House of Commons that will make it easier for him to get his legislation through.

That’s because in Britain’s electoral system, the candidate with the most votes in each constituency wins even if they don’t get a majority. This makes it easier for a party to win a seat on a relatively low share of the vote, especially when votes are spread out among many parties. These include the anti-immigration Reform UK, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats.

Conservatives punished

No election has seen this many Cabinet ministers lose their seats in Parliament, including some who were prospective candidates to replace Rishi Sunak when he steps down as leader of the party.

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Among the 11 Cabinet ministers who have lost their seats, perhaps the most consequential is Penny Mordaunt, who gained international notoriety when she held up a large sword throughout much of last year’s coronation of King Charles III. She was widely tipped to be a future leader as she has support across the party.

Others included Defense Secretary Grant Shapps, Transport Secretary Mark Harper and Education Secretary Gillian Keegan.

The casualty with the highest profile wasn’t even in the Cabinet. That honor goes to Liz Truss, who was prime minister for just 49 days in the fall of 2022 and whose unfunded tax cuts roiled financial markets and sent borrowing costs for homeowners surging. Sunak, who succeeded Truss, could never shake off the legacy of her premiership.

Labour’s Gaza problem

Four of Labour’s candidates lost to independent challengers campaigning on a pro-Palestinian platform in constituencies with big Muslim populations.

The biggest surprise was Jonathan Ashworth, who was expected to be in Starmer’s Cabinet but lost his seat in Leicester, a city in central England where a third of the population is Muslim.

Even Starmer, who has been criticized for being slow to back a ceasefire in Gaza, saw his majority in his Holborn and St. Pancras seat reduced as more than 7,000 ballots were cast for an independent candidate who had Gaza at the heart of his campaign.

Labour is back in Scotland

In 2015 Labour, which had been dominant in Scottish politics for decades, lost all but one of its seats to the pro-independence Scottish National Party.

Thursday’s election almost reversed that, with Labour winning the vast majority of seats in Scotland while the SNP lost 38 seats, leaving it with only nine and putting to rest any thoughts of a pro-independence referendum for Scotland any time soon.

The SNP, which governs in Scotland, has had a difficult few years, most notably as a result of a funding scandal that has embroiled former leader Nicola Sturgeon and her husband.

John Swinney, who only became first minister a few weeks ago, pledged a period of “soul searching” and admitted that the party was “not winning the argument” over independence.

Musical chairs

The newly elected candidates will officially become members of parliament on Tuesday when the House of Commons returns for the swearing in and oath of allegiance to King Charles III.

When they take their seats on the green benches, the Labour members will sit where the Conservatives have been for the past 14 years, on the right hand side of the speaker of the House. The Conservatives will be the opposition, having come second, and will sit to the left of the speaker.

The other opposition benches will look very different, however. There will be 71 Liberal Democrats, up from the 15 who were there when Parliament was dissolved in May, and four Green members rather than one. There will also be four members of the anti-immigration Reform U.K., including its leader and self-professed political agitator, Nigel Farage, who won a seat in Parliament on his eighth attempt. And the SNP’s presence will be much diminished.

Reform, which contested its first election, is already saying the U.K.'s electoral system is unfair and are calling for a change, noting they got 14% of the vote, 2 percentage points more than the Liberal Democrats, but ended up with a far lower number of seats, But the U.K.'s electoral system has always been about getting the votes in the right place.


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

What we learned from the UK's general election that will shape politics over the coming years (2024)
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