Labour Holds Hopeful Lead as Conservatives Face Grim Election Prospects

Britain Election

LONDON — British voters are casting ballots Thursday in a parliamentary election that is widely expected to hand the Labour Party victory against a backdrop of economic troubles, eroding public trust in institutions, and social unrest.

A disillusioned electorate is giving its judgment on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservative Party, which has been in power since 2010. Polls opened at 40,000 polling stations in diverse locations including churches, a laundromat, and a crematorium.

Hundreds of communities are engaged in close races where traditional party loyalties are being overshadowed by pressing concerns about the economy, crumbling infrastructure, and the National Health Service.

In Henley-on-Thames, about 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of London, voters like Patricia Mulcahy, who is retired, sensed a desire for change in the nation. The community, which typically votes Conservative, may shift its allegiance this time.

“The younger generation are far more interested in change,’’ Mulcahy said. “So, I think whatever happens in Henley, in the country, there will be a big shift. But whoever gets in, they’ve got a heck of a job ahead of them. It’s not going to be easy.”

Sunak made the short trip 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 center-left Labour Party led by Keir Starmer has held a steady and substantial lead in opinion polls for months, but its leaders have cautioned against taking the election result for granted, fearing that their supporters might stay home.

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

A couple of hours after posting that message, Starmer walked hand-in-hand with his wife, Victoria, into a polling place in the Kentish Town section of London to cast his vote. He left through a back door out of sight of a crowd of residents and journalists who had gathered.

The Conservatives have acknowledged that Labour appears on track for victory and have urged voters to avoid giving the party a “supermajority.”

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 that “if the polls are to be believed, the country could wake up tomorrow to a Labour supermajority ready to wield their unchecked power.” He urged voters to support the Conservatives to limit Labour’s power.

Labour has not stirred great enthusiasm with its pledges to stimulate the sluggish economy, invest in infrastructure, and make Britain a “clean energy superpower.”

But nothing has really gone wrong in its campaign, either. The party has secured the backing of large segments of the business community and endorsements from traditionally conservative newspapers, including the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sun tabloid.

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

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 blunders. The campaign got off to an inauspicious start when rain drenched Sunak as he made the announcement outside 10 Downing St. 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 insider information to place bets on the date of the election before it was announced.

It has all made it harder for Sunak to shake off the stigma of political chaos and mismanagement that’s surrounded 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, rattled the economy with a package of drastic tax cuts and lasted just 49 days in office. There is widespread dissatisfaction over a range of issues, from a creaking public health care 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 exploited this gap and garnered attention with his anti-immigration rhetoric.

The centrist Liberal Democrats and environmentalist Green Party also hope to attract 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.”