What to know as Conservatives and Labour vie for votes 1 week into Britain's election campaign

The first week of Britain’s six-week election campaign has seen frenetic activity but not much movement

Jill Lawless
Wednesday 29 May 2024 16:10 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


The first week of Britain’s six-week election campaign has seen frenetic activity but not much movement.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s surprise decision to call a July 4 election set off a scramble by political parties to finalize candidate lists, arrange photo opportunities and send leaders off to key battlegrounds around the country. The parties have also begun making campaign promises to British voters.

Here are five lessons from the campaign so far:


The left-of-center Labour Party remains favorite to win the most seats in the 650-seat House of Commons and return to power after 14 years of Conservative government.

While major pollsters give varying figures, all show a double-digit Labour lead, with little change since Sunak called the election on May 22.

Anand Menon, director of political think-tank U.K. in a Changing Europe, said that while polls may change as the campaign goes on, so far “there’s been a consistency to them that has been staggering.”


Labour leader Keir Starmer has been likened to a man carrying a priceless vase across a polished floor. He is desperate not to trip up.

He has told voters they can trust his Labour Party to safeguard the country’s economy, borders and security — trying to overturn a perception that Labour is weaker on defense and security and more profligate with taxpayers’ money, than the center-right Conservatives.

Policies announced so far are cautious: Starmer says a Labour government will cut health care waiting times, get a grip on migration – but ditch the government’s controversial plan to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda – and build an economy that is simultaneously “pro-worker and pro-business.”

“Labour don’t seem to have any great surprises in the campaign to wow us with.” Menon said. “I think they and the (smaller opposition) Lib Dems are counting on anger at the Tories getting people out” to vote.

Labour’s strong lead has kept Starmer’s internal critics quiet for now, but he is mistrusted by many on Labour’s left wing, who consider him too centrist.

Many of them have been angered by the party’s treatment of Diana Abbott, a Labour lawmaker since 1987 who was the first Black woman elected to Parliament.

Abbott, 70, was suspended by Labour last year for comments that suggested Jewish and Irish people do not experience racism “all their lives.” She was reinstated this week, but says party leaders have barred her from running for reelection. Starmer insists no such decision has been made.


Sunak’s party has focused on shoring up its vote by targeting the group most likely to vote Conservative: over-65s.

Campaign promises include a boost to the state pension and a plan to make all 18-year-olds undertake a year of civilian or military national service. Polls suggest that idea is extremely unpopular with young people, but is supported by older voters.

The Conservatives are expending much of their energy trying to stop supporters switching to Reform, a hard-right successor to the anti-EU Brexit Party. Reform’s honorary president is Nigel Farage, the populist firebrand whose anti-immigration rhetoric helped swing Britain’s 2016 European Union membership referendum in favor of “leave.”

Farage, who has unsuccessfully run for Parliament seven times, is not standing for election, but is popping up to support Reform candidates and make life difficult for the Conservatives.


Britain’s departure from the EU was the U.K.’s biggest step – or, to opponents, misstep – in decades, with huge implications for the economy and society.

Brexit was approved by a vote of 52% to 48% in the referendum, and remains a divisive topic that few politicians want to talk about.

Sunak was a Brexit supporter, but doesn’t want to discuss the economic downsides to the decision to leave the pan-continental trading bloc.

Starmer was a strong backer of remaining in the bloc, but now says a Labour government would not seek to reverse Brexit. Critics say that shows a lack of political principle. Supporters say it’s pragmatic and respects the fact that British voters have little desire to revisit the divisive Brexit debate.

The pro-independence Scottish National Party, which wants to take Scotland out of the United Kingdom and back into the EU, is the only major party using relations with Europe as a campaign issue.


Sunak ruined an expensive suit by making his election announcement while standing in the rain. He said he endured the downpour because it’s British tradition for prime ministers to announce elections in front of 10 Downing St., “come rain or shine.”

Starmer scoffed at that explanation.

“I would have had an umbrella,” he said. “I think almost anyone in the country would have had an umbrella.”

The leader of the centrist Liberal Democrats, Ed Davey, got a soaking when he invited journalists to watch him paddleboarding on Lake Windermere to highlight the issue of sewage discharges into the famous beauty spot.

He toppled into the water — losing his dignity but gaining valuable media coverage for a party that often struggles to draw public attention away from its bigger rivals.

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