Labour hopeful and Conservatives morose as UK votes

Jill Lawless |

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak went to his local polling station as his government faces likely defeat.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak went to his local polling station as his government faces likely defeat.

British voters are picking a new government in a parliamentary election that is widely expected to bring the Labour Party to power against a gloomy backdrop of economic malaise, mounting distrust in institutions and a fraying social fabric.

A jaded electorate is delivering its verdict on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservative Party, which has been in power since 2010.

Polls opened at 7am (4pm AEST) on Thursday.

Britain's Labour Party leader Keir Starmer
Keir Starmer’s Labour has held a significant poll lead over the Conservative government for months. (AP PHOTO)

Sunak made the short journey from his home to vote at Kirby Sigston Village Hall in his Richmond constituency.

He arrived with his wife, Akshata Murty, and walked hand-in-hand into the village hall, which is surrounded by rolling fields.

The centre-left Labour Party led by Keir Starmer has had a steady and significant lead in opinion polls for months, but its leaders have warned against taking the election result for granted, worried their supporters will stay home.

“Change. Today, you can vote for it,” he wrote Thursday on the X social media platform.

The Conservatives have acknowledged that Labour appears headed for victory and urged voters not to hand the party a “super-majority”.

In the final days of campaigning, Sunak insisted “the outcome of this election is not a foregone conclusion”.

But in a message to voters on Wednesday, Sunak said “if the polls are to be believed, the country could wake up tomorrow to a Labour super-majority ready to wield their unchecked power”.

He urged voters to back the Conservatives to limit Labour’s power.

Labour has not set pulses racing with its pledges to get the sluggish economy growing, invest in infrastructure and make Britain a “clean energy superpower”.

But nothing has really gone wrong in its campaign, either.

The party has won the support of large chunks of the business community and endorsements from traditionally conservative newspapers, including the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sun tabloid.

A polling station sign in London
There is widespread voter dissatisfaction over a host of issues, from health to infrastructure. (AP PHOTO)

The Sun said in an editorial that “by dragging his party back to the centre ground of British politics for the first time since Tony Blair was in No.10 (Downing Street), Sir Keir has won the right to take charge,” using the knighted Starmer’s formal title.

Former Labour candidate Douglas Beattie, author of the book How Labour Wins (and Why it Loses), said Starmer’s “quiet stability probably chimes with the mood of the country right now”.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, have been plagued by gaffes.

The campaign got off to an inauspicious start when rain drenched Sunak as he made the announcement outside 10 Downing Street.

Then, Sunak went home early from commemorations in France marking the 80th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.

Several Conservatives close to Sunak are being investigated over suspicions they used inside information to place bets on the date of the election before it was announced.

Reform UK leader Nigel Farage at a boxing gym in Clacton, England
Reform UK leader Nigel Farage is seeking to tap into voter dissatisfaction with the major parties. (AP PHOTO)

It has all made it harder for Sunak to shake off the taint of political chaos and mismanagement that has gathered around the Conservatives since then-prime minister Boris Johnson and his staff held lockdown-breaching parties during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Johnson’s successor, Liz Truss, rocked the economy with a package of drastic tax cuts and lasted just 49 days in office.

There is widespread dissatisfaction over a host of issues, from a creaking public healthcare system to crumbling infrastructure.

But for many voters, the lack of trust applies not just to Conservatives, but to politicians in general.

Veteran rouser of the right, Nigel Farage, has leaped into that breach and grabbed attention with his anti-immigration rhetoric as leader of Reform UK.

The centrist Liberal Democrats and environmentalist Green Party also want to sweep up disaffected voters.

“I don’t know who’s for me as a working person,” said Michelle Bird, a port worker in Southampton on England’s south coast who was undecided about whether to vote Labour or Conservative.

“I don’t know whether it’s the devil you know or the devil you don’t.”