Six key issues that could determine the UK election

Candidates' positions on the economy, NHS waiting lists, immigration, education, housing, and criminal justice reform could determine who wins, although Labour is the frontrunner by a healthy margin

Britain's main opposition Labour Party leader, Keir Starmer, delivers a speech on energy policy in northwest Glasgow on May 31, 2024, ahead of the UK general election on July 4, 2024.
Britain's main opposition Labour Party leader, Keir Starmer, delivers a speech on energy policy in northwest Glasgow on May 31, 2024, ahead of the UK general election on July 4, 2024.

Six key issues that could determine the UK election

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s decision to call a general election on 4 July at a moment when his ruling Conservative Party is trailing badly in the opinion polls represents a massive political gamble, one which some critics claim could become a mass suicide event for his party. Since the abolition of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, only the prime minister can decide when to call an election, meaning that the decision was Sunak’s alone or one taken with his wife, Akshata.

The decision has certainly not been popular among many of Sunak’s senior ministers, many of whom risk losing their seats. Among those said to be against the decision to go to the polls was Sunak’s election advisor, Isaac Levido—who led the Tory operation to its 2019 electoral high point. According to Downing Street insiders, he advised the prime minister to wait until later this year, mainly to give party officials the chance to prepare properly for what promises to be an arduous campaign.

Senior ministers, such as Defence Secretary Grant Shapps and Foreign Secretary Lord David Cameron, were also said to have had misgivings. But by the time Sunak convened an emergency cabinet meeting to discuss the issue, he had already observed the constitutional requirement of asking King Charles III to dissolve Parliament, meaning that the die had already been cast before other government ministers could have their say.

The result is that the UK has now been plunged into another election campaign, with most pundits predicting that the opposition Labour Party will emerge victorious after fourteen years of consecutive Conservative rule.

Wrongfooted by the prime minister’s announcement that a general election is to be held on 4 July, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer lost no time making his first keynote speech of the election campaign on 27 May. Although Labour is widely expected to win this year’s general election, he has yet to persuade an electorate who may be exasperated with the Conservatives but are not yet convinced by Starmer’s alternative appeal.

Many, including even the most senior figures in his own party, were taken back by Sunak’s announcement—the election was widely expected to be held in the autumn—and have been vocal about preferring a later date. Those making that argument, including Tory deputy leader Oliver Dowden, felt that things might not improve much and that the perceived desire of the electorate to be given a say soon might risk making any Conservative defeat worse if the election was pushed back.

Although Labour is widely expected to win the election, Starmer has yet to persuade unconvinced voters.

Fraser Nelson, the impeccably connected editor of the Conservative Spectator magazine, describes how Sunak had gathered a few Cabinet members in advance to break the news last week. "He told them he had already been to see the King to seek the dissolution of Parliament (traditionally, this part is done last), so he was presenting a fait accompli. This was a closed discussion: trying to talk him out of it would be pointless. Grant Shapps, the Defence Secretary, still told him that this was the wrong time for an election. David Cameron, recalled from business abroad for this meeting, said it was 'bold' which is Westminster-speak for 'madness'."

Considerations and predictions

Two main points seem to have emerged from this meeting. The first is that the prime minister does not believe things will improve for the party over the summer, so he sees no advantage in waiting. It's predicted, for instance, that NHS waiting lists will rise for at least two months, thereby breaking one of the five pledges he made when he first entered Downing Street to improve Britain's ailing public services. The illegal immigration small boats situation, another of Sunak's key pledges, is also getting worse.

Ministers also learned that the election is to be conducted like a US presidential campaign, pitting the party leaders rather than the parties against each other—a decision made in the face of Sunak's approval ratings, some of the worst in postwar history. 

On the other hand, inflation is down, and the wider economic picture appears to be brighter, too. The government's plan to send some asylum seekers to Rwanda hasn't happened yet, but it would appear flights could be imminent, perhaps even during the election campaign, which could give the Conservatives an electoral boost.

As BBC political editor Chris Mason has said when asked about the timing of the election, "In other words, do it now, or it could get worse."

The Times poll tracker, which combines figures from several pollsters, currently has the Conservatives 21 points behind Labour. No party has ever overturned such a polling deficit this close to an election. Labour has much the same lead as it had at the same stage leading up to the 1997 landslide victory when former Labour premier Tony Blair won by a landslide.

Newly elected British Prime Minister Tony Blair (C) waves at supporters on 2 May upon his arrival at No. 10 Downing Street in London, his new residence after winning the 1 May general elections against outgoing PM John Major.

"We can pretty much guarantee that, right now anyway, the Tories are indeed in big trouble, "said Time Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. Professor Colin Rallings, meanwhile, has been producing polling analysis for decades. He thinks voters will peel away from other parties like the far-right Reform Party.

"My suspicion is," he says, "that as usual in British elections because of our electoral system, at the sharp end of the campaign, 'who do you want to run the country?' pushes people back into two camps: Tory and Labour. He thinks current Tory poll ratings will improve because of that. "The first thing that the Tories have to do is lose their majority," he says. "That happens on a relatively small swing."

The Lib Dems will help, pushing in likely Tory seats like Cheltenham and their other former Tory strongholds in southwest London. The next stage is getting Labour to be the biggest party, which requires Labour winning back seats it recently lost.  "The first places you begin to look are the seats held narrowly by the Tories, or those in the red wall, places that Labour lost in 2019 and 2017."

The final stage, which gets Labour to a majority, is winning some of the seats that Tony Blair's Labour could rely upon. "Places like Worcester, Nuneaton and Dover, which typically back the election winner, are exactly where Labour needs to win in order to build up a majority."

Campaigning blitz

Both the Tories and Labour have started a long-anticipated multimillion-pound digital campaign blitz, taking advantage of newly relaxed election spending limits ahead of what will be the costliest poll in British history. The raised spending cap means they can pour millions more into social media adverts in this election than was permitted in 2019. 

Parties can spend £35mn in this election, almost double the £19.5mn cap in 2019, after the limit was upped in November to account for inflation. This heightens the importance of digital advertising campaigns for the main political parties, which can target voters more directly and less expensively than traditional face-to-face canvassing.

Britain's main opposition Labour Party leader, Keir Starmer (R), and Britain's main opposition Labour Party Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rachel Reeves, canvas for votes in Swindon, west of London, on March 30, 2023.

Read more: Labour and Tories bleed support from their respective bases

Craig Oliver, David Cameron's former director of communications, has also said that influencing the BBC's coverage was the main objective of all political press officers. This used to mean phoning the editors of specific television news shows. Now, the focus is shifting online: "The sheer scale of the BBC website alone and its breaking news alerts is huge. Once something gets into the water supply of the BBC, it's very hard to get it out."

Six key issues

The election is being fought on six key issues. As regards the economy, Sunak will point to falling inflation and recent tax cuts as signs the Conservatives are the safest hands, while hints about further tax cuts will be used to woo voters. Labour will argue that its strict fiscal rules will help bring down debt and grow the economy. It will likely point to rising food and energy bills and the mortgage chaos triggered by Liz Truss's mini-budget.

Sunak made cutting NHS waiting lists one of his main health pledges, committing record funding of nearly £165bn—but a huge backlog remains. There is also a crisis in dentistry, and social care leaders have warned that rising demand and staffing issues have brought the system to its knees. Labour's headline pledges include promising to cut waiting times with thousands of extra appointments each week and creating shared waiting lists so hospitals can pool resources.

On immigration, Sunak staked his premiership on a promise to "stop the boats," and the government's Rwanda Bill finally became law last month. However, the decision to call a summer election means planes won't take off before people go to the polls. Starmer has pledged to scrap the deal and use the money instead for a new Cross-Border Police Unit to tackle small boat crossings.

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks during a press conference in the Downing Street Briefing Room in central London on March 7, 2023, following the announcement of the Illegal Migration Bill.

Education is a key dividing line between the two main parties. One of Labour's flagship policies is to end tax breaks enjoyed by private schools to raise £1.7bn to invest in state schools. Childcare, too, is a divisive issue. Labour has committed to keeping the government-extended free provision but has said there are not enough staff to match the places.

For housing, the Tories pledged in their election manifesto to build 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s, but that has not been achieved, and the figure watered down in December 2022. Labour has vowed to be on the side of "builders, not blockers" and has announced its ambition to create 1.5 million new homes by creating "new towns".  The government's flagship renters reform and leasehold reform bills will not make it into law before the election. Labour has backed both pieces of legislation but wants to go further and says it will abolish no-fault evictions.

The criminal justice system faces major issues, with prisons overflowing, knife crime on the rise, a record-high crown court backlog, and prosecutions at an all-time low. The Conservatives have announced plans for tougher sentences for the most serious criminals and measures to force offenders to appear in the dock. Labour has promised to be "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" with pledges to fund more community police officers and give parents classes to handle anti-social behaviour.

Having called the election, there is certainly no shortage of issues for the candidates to focus on during the six-week campaign. The challenge for Sunak is whether he can win the argument on each of these issues sufficiently to win re-election as prime minister in July.

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