Takeaways from the U.K. elections

Political scientist Brendan O’Leary of the School of Arts & Sciences offers his take on the Labour Party’s landslide victory and what it means going forward.

Keir Starmer shakes hands with supporters holding signs that say Change and look like the UK flag.
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer with his supporters at the Tate Modern in London on July 5, 2024. (Image: AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

Britain’s Labour Party has pulled off a landslide victory, sending the center-left party’s leader, Keir Starmer, to 10 Downing St. as prime minister. The Conservative Party, led by now-former Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, endured its worst loss in history. Political scientist Brendan O’Leary of the School of Arts & Sciences offers his take on the election results and what the change of leadership means going forward.

What led to the unprecedented defeat of the Conservative Party?

After 14 years in power, an enormous proportion of voters hated them. They had also deeply disappointed their own supporters with numerous and volatile unmet promises. They badly mismanaged the U.K. economy and had presided over stagnant living standards and decaying public services. The follies of Brexit not only failed to produce sunlit uplands, but the party also fought a sustained series of internal civil wars over whether to go further right or to move to the center. They were also plagued by scandals and sustained lying by ministers, and one prime minister in particular. The 50-day fiasco of Liz Truss’ premiership could not be wiped from the public’s memories.

What was the main issue motivating voters?

For 4 in 5 of those who voted, getting rid of the Tories mattered most. They sought improved public services and competence after the turbulence since 2016. But it should not be forgotten that a high proportion abstained, disillusioned and angry rather than apathetic.

What makes this election historic?

The scale of the Tory defeat and the volatility on display. It is not yet five years since Boris Johnson won a thumping majority of seats—not votes—promising to ‘get Brexit done.’

What does this mean going forward for the U.K.?

Clearly, Labour will do its best to stop the bleeding and seek to win the confidence of the markets, voters, and the U.K.’s allies. A slow rebuild is what it is offering. Whether that can be accomplished outside the European Union’s single market and customs union remains to be seen. Labour will certainly seek to repair the U.K.’s relations with its neighbors in the E.U. and in Ireland.

What is the most important thing for people outside the U.K. to understand about the election?

That policy follies and incompetence are eventually punished, and it was possible to kick out the incumbents. We will need time to assess Starmer’s premiership. Labour’s preferred song right now is, ‘Things can only get better.’ We will see whether that is true.