After 14 years and countless scandals, U.K. voters seem ready to dump Conservatives

3 July 2024
After 14 years and countless scandals, U.K. voters seem ready to dump Conservatives

On Thursday, British voters will pass judgment on 14 years of Conservative-led rule.

“People are angry,” said Carole Jones, a local councillor in Dorset, in southern England. “They are distrustful of all politicians.”

Jones hears that anger from people she interacts with at the “social supermarket” she founded four years ago. Similar to a food bank, it currently helps nearly 400 families and elderly people struggling with the cost of living.

Carole Jones, who lives in Dorset, in southern England, founded a ‘social supermarket’ four years ago. Similar to a food bank, it currently helps nearly 400 families and elderly people struggling with the cost of living. (Submitted by Carole Jones)

It’s a telltale sign of how difficult life has become for some in Britain when such a provision is needed in an English county that also boasts Sandbanks’s “Millionaire’s Row,” said to be the most expensive coastal street in the world.

Gordon Brown, the last Labour prime minister, emphasized the problem in the Daily Mirror on Tuesday, noting that in 2010, when the Conservatives came to power, the U.K. had 35 food banks. Now there are 2,600.

“There is a strong dislike of the Westminster bubble,” Jones told CBC News, referring to the U.K. Parliament in London. “It’s far removed from normal day-to-day life.”

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Even Jones, a Conservative herself, believes “it’s time for a change.” She wants to see the party reset itself.

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5 years of turmoil

How did the Tories’ fortunes change so completely since 2010?

Five years ago, the party was flying high, buoyed by the personal popularity of then-leader Boris Johnson. In 2019, he delivered them their biggest electoral win since Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 victory.

But a lot can happen in five years — and two more prime ministers, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak.

This week, the right-wing ruling party enters an election as the underdog, rather than one that has won the last four votes.

As a sign of the party’s flagging prospects, 75 Conservative MPs are standing down, including some who were once big hitters in government: former PM Theresa May, former foreign secretary Dominic Raab and former finance minister Kwasi Kwarteng.

Are they deserting a sinking ship? All the polls agree on one thing: the opposition centre-left Labour Party has a big lead — about 20 points — and that has barely budged for two years.

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Short of any major data error or last-minute salvation, the Conservatives are predicted to crash headlong into the worst electoral defeat in their 200-year history.

Polls suggest the U.K.’s ruling Conservatives could face a major defeat in the upcoming general election, igniting comparisons to what happened in Canada in 1993. The National’s Adrienne Arsenault asks reporters Chris Brown and Rob Russo to break down the unlikely Canadian connection and what it tells us about the electorate now.

Rishi Sunak, the current prime minister, insists the U.K. has recently turned a corner — that the economic outlook is better now than when the pandemic required the government to increase spending and the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine pushed up energy prices, resulting in sharp rises for Britons’ household bills.

But the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a London-based think-tank, says international factors aside, the combination of low investment, policy mistakes, political instability and Brexit — Britain’s departure from the European Union — has held back U.K.’s growth.

During the six-week election campaign, Foreign Secretary (and former prime minister) David Cameron told The Times of London, “I think we can win this election.”

But his opposite number, Labour’s David Lammy, told reporters at a briefing of the Foreign Press Association on Monday that “Britain feels more divided than at any other time that I can remember.”

Gambling on an early election

“They’ve had 14 years” is a regular rebuttal from disenchanted voters.

“Conservatives have lost support,” said Prof. Peter Sloman, a senior lecturer of British politics at the University of Cambridge, suggesting as many as one in two voters have turned away from the party.

“Some have gone to Labour, others to Reform, led by Nigel Farage, and others to the Liberal Democrats,” said Sloman. “Conservatives are facing a pincer movement from different angles.”

Farage, formerly of the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) and the Brexit Party, is a known political disruptor. Pledging to freeze all non-essential immigration, his Reform Party aims to split the Conservative vote. The Liberal Democrats, whose leader Sir Ed Davey has filled the campaign with stunts from paddle boarding to bungee jumping to grab voters’ attention, are on track for their best result since 2010, with a small possibility they could become Britain’s main opposition party.

Labour Leader Keir Starmer says the U.K. general election is a moment the country ‘needs and has been waiting for.’

Sunak took a gamble calling this election early — Britain’s first in July since 1945 — banking on better economic data to win voters.

In northwest London, Jeff Graham, who came out of retirement to return to work as a development consultant, is disillusioned. Pointing to issues such as health care and education, he said, “I really feel that politicians are simply unable to relate to ordinary people.”

Jeff Graham, who lives in northwest London, said he feels ‘an increasing distrust in politicians and political institutions.’ (Submitted by Jeff Graham)

Graham said claims of an economic rebound are also a tough sell given the party’s succession of scandals, unfulfilled promises and what he calls “perceptions of corruption or incompetence.”

From “Partygate” (the lockdown parties in Downing Street that enraged a nation stuck at home during the COVID pandemic) to allegations of sexual harassment and assault to one MP who admitted to twice watching pornography in the House of Commons chamber, the Conservatives have been mired in scandal.

“People have seen the chaos of government,” said Matt Bebb, a teacher in the historically Labour-supporting city of Liverpool in northwest England. For example, he noted there have been 10 education secretaries in the past 14 years. “[Brits have] lost faith in politics.”

Brits want ‘a functional government’

The last straw perhaps was when bookmakers noticed a spike in bets on a July election the week before Sunak stood in the pouring rain outside Number 10 Downing Street and announced his decision.

A number of candidates — all but one of them Conservative — as well as the Conservative Party’s campaign director and several close protection police officers are now under investigation by the gambling regulator on suspicion of using inside information to place bets on the election date.

Calicia Tavernier, who studies history and politics at Leicester University in central England, MP scandals have become routine. (Submitted by Calicia Tavernier)

Calicia Tavernier, a history and politics student at Leicester University in central England, said reading about MP scandals has become routine.

“We are represented by politicians who have become political celebrities, where accountability has been curtailed and the people are no longer prioritized,” she said.

Tavernier believes this election will show that British voters want “a functional government.”

The Conservatives are closing the campaign warning of what they say could be a “dangerous Labour supermajority.” It indicates that it will come as no surprise — even to the Tories — if many British voters respond favourably to Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer’s one-word mantra: “Change.”

Source: cbc

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