UK Parliamentary Election: Britons Vote Amidst Economic Uncertainty

British voters were casting ballots on Thursday to choose a new government in an election widely expected to deliver power to the Labour Party amid a gloomy economic outlook, a growing lack of trust in institutions, and a fraying social fabric.

A weary electorate is offering its verdict on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservative Party, which has been in power since 2010. Polling stations, including churches, a laundromat, and a crematorium, opened at 40,000 locations across the country.

“Nothing has gone well in the last 14 years,” said London voter James Erskine, who expressed optimism for change. “I see this as a potential for a seismic shift, and that’s what I’m hoping for.”

While Labour’s consistent and substantial lead in opinion polls seems to defy recent rightward electoral trends in Europe, such as those observed in France and Italy, many of those same populist currents are evident in Britain. Reform UK leader has stirred the race with his party’s anti-immigrant “take our country back” stance, undermining support for the Conservatives who were already facing bleak prospects.

Hundreds of communities were engaged in close contests where traditional party loyalties have been overshadowed by more immediate concerns about the economy, crumbling infrastructure, and the National Health Service.

In Henley-on-Thames, about 40 miles west of London, voters like Patricia Mulcahy, a retiree, sensed a desire for change among the nation. The community, traditionally a Conservative stronghold, may see a shift in its voting pattern 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.”

Britain has endured a period of turbulent years — some self-inflicted by the Conservatives and some beyond their control — that has left many voters pessimistic about their country’s future. The U.K.’s withdrawal from the European Union, followed by the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, battered the economy, while lockdown-breaching parties held by then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his staff caused widespread public anger.

Johnson’s successor, Liz Truss, further destabilized the economy with a package of drastic tax cuts and lasted just 49 days in office. Rising poverty and cuts to state services have fueled complaints about “Broken Britain.”

The first part of the day saw sunny skies across much of the country, providing favorable weather conditions for voter turnout.

In the first hour after polls opened, Sunak made the short journey from his home to vote at Kirby Sigston Village Hall in his Richmond constituency in northern England. 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 maintained a consistent and significant lead in opinion polls for months, but its leaders have cautioned against taking the election result for granted, concerned 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.

Labour has not set hearts racing with its pledges to stimulate the sluggish economy, invest in infrastructure, and become a “clean energy superpower.”

But nothing has gone significantly wrong in its campaign either. The party has gained the support of significant sections of the business community and endorsements from traditionally conservative newspapers, including the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sun tabloid, which praised Starmer for “dragging his party back to the center ground of British politics.”

The Conservatives have acknowledged that Labour appears poised for victory.

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.

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 missteps. The campaign got off to a disastrous 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 inside information to place bets on the date of the election before it was announced.

Sunak has struggled to shed the image of political chaos and mismanagement that has become associated with the Conservatives.

But for many voters, the lack of trust extends beyond the governing party, encompassing politicians in general. Farage has capitalized on this breach of trust.

The centrist Liberal Democrats and environmentalist Green Party are also seeking to attract disillusioned 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.”