UK Elections: What to Know

In Brief

UK Elections: What to Know

The United Kingdom appears poised for a political shift in response to deep economic concerns, but its foreign policy priorities are likely to remain consistent.

United Kingdom (UK) Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced a general election for the 650-seat House of Commons on July 4, the first election since the United Kingdom left the European Union in 2020. Sunak’s Conservative Party is seeking another mandate after fourteen years in power, while the Labour Party has maintained a twenty-point polling lead under leader Keir Starmer in recent weeks. The election occurs amid a malaise in the UK marked by weak economic growth, deep concern about the National Health Service, and a lack of faith in the government to solve problems such as migration pressures and a cost-of-living crisis.

Who are the political figures and parties to watch?

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Rishi Sunak. Sunak became leader of the Conservative Party in October 2022 following the tumultuous premiership of Liz Truss, who held office for forty-nine days. The first British Asian prime minister, he also served as chancellor of the exchequer under Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Sunak, forty-four, sought to halve inflation, grow the economy, reduce public debt, reduce the National Health Service waiting lists, and curtail irregular migration via small boat crossings. Although inflation decreased, he struggled to achieve his other pledges. In foreign policy, Sunak has maintained support for Ukraine and appointed as foreign minister former Prime Minister David Cameron, who has worked for a peace plan in the Israel-Hamas war.

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Keir Starmer. Starmer became leader of the Labour Party after Jeremy Corbyn, a member of Parliament (MP) representing the party’s left wing, resigned following the party’s poor result in the 2019 election. Hailing from a working-class family, the sixty-one-year-old previously led the Crown Prosecution Service. Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy has set out a Labour foreign policy guided by “progressive realism,” which would include improving ties with the European Union (EU) and recognizing Palestine as a state. Polling suggests Starmer’s cautious approach has been successful: Labour is expected to return to government with a significant majority.

Nigel Farage. A key voice for the “Leave” campaign in support of the 2016 Brexit referendum, the sixty-year-old is making his eighth attempt to become an MP. He has led his populist party through multiple iterations, first as the United Kingdom Independence Party, then as the Brexit Party, and now as Reform UK. Analysts say Reform is likely to siphon off votes from disaffected Tory voters who are unhappy with the government’s inability to reduce migration numbers.

Ed Davey. Davey is the leader of the Liberal Democrats, a centrist party that is set to reclaim its traditional place as the third-largest party in the House of Commons. At fifty-eight years old, Davey has spent most of his professional life in politics. This election cycle, the party is campaigning on a platform of bettering Britain’s health- and social-care systems with an emphasis on local issues, such as improving water systems. Notably, the Liberal Democrats are the only party in favor of rejoining the EU, though they stress this is a long-term goal. Center-right voters who are frustrated with Tory scandals such as “Partygate,” in which Johnson’s government was found to be breaking lockdown rules during the COVID-19 pandemic, have supported the Liberal Democrats in recent local council elections.

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The vote takes place in a period of economic turmoil. Is that the main issue for voters?

Yes, by a wide margin. The UK economy faces persistent inflation and low growth, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development anticipates that the UK will have the lowest growth rate in the Group of Seven in 2025. In October 2022, Prime Minister Liz Truss introduced a “mini budget” that included the largest tax cuts since 1972 for high earners while also massively expanding government borrowing. The plan precipitated a financial crisis in the bond market, from which the UK is still recovering. Coupled with the economic challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Brexit, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, inflation reached a peak of 11.1 percent in October 2022 and has since lowered to 2.3 percent. Living standards for the poorest households remain 20 percent below the 2019–20 level.

The political toxicity of Brexit has constrained policy options to improve the UK’s growth rate. Sunak stabilized the UK-EU relationship through the Windsor Agreement, which resolved a long-running dispute over trading arrangements in Northern Ireland. Neither the Conservative nor Labour parties are in favor of rejoining the European Union’s single market, however, which was the UK’s primary export destination prior to Brexit. MP Rachel Reeves is set to become the UK’s first female chancellor of the exchequer upon a Labour victory. Her proposal offers broad continuities with Sunak’s handling of the economy—namely, balancing the budget and maintaining the current tax rate.

More on:

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Elections and Voting

Immigration and Migration

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Aside from the economy, what’s the top issue for voters? 

Concern for migration, although it tends to fall along political party lines. The UK recorded an all-time high of migrant arrivals in 2022: the Office for National Statistics reported that 745,000 people migrated legally, whereas about 46,000 migrated irregularly, according to the Home Office. Conservative voters continue to cite migration as one of their top concerns, whereas Labour voters view migration as an economic benefit and see it as less important than other issues, such as the cost of living. 

BBC's Prime Ministerial Debate between Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak, in Nottingham
Starmer and Sunak take part in BBC’s Prime Ministerial Debate. Phil Noble/Reuters

Most irregular migrants to the UK lodge asylum claims after crossing the English Channel from France in small boats. The Conservative Party has made stopping the boats from Calais a key campaign pledge without much success—the number of people attempting small boats crossings in 2024 is higher than in the past four years.

In 2022, Johnson reached an agreement with Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame to send anyone who seeks asylum in the United Kingdom to Rwanda, effectively eliminating the ability to claim asylum in the UK. The proposal encountered multiple legal challenges and opposition from the House of Lords, as the European Court of Human Rights said the deal violated the UK’s international legal obligations. Sunak now says the first flight to send asylum seekers to Rwanda will occur if the Conservatives are reelected in July. Starmer says his government will scrap the Rwanda deal if Labour gains power.

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