Oppositions don’t win elections, received Westminster wisdom tells us. Governments lose them. And in Britain’s July 4 election, the ruling Conservatives lost big. After a 14-year governing streak defined by Brexit, a pandemic, and an astonishing period of political and financial turbulence that ushered in three Prime Ministers in just one year, the world’s most successful political party—which since 1945 has been in power twice as long as it’s been out of it—has been shunted back into opposition. In its place stands the Labour Party, which has secured an electoral landslide. The party’s leader, prosecutor-turned-politician Keir Starmer, will become Britain’s 58th Prime Minister.

“We did it!” Starmer told supporters in a jubilant victory speech in the early hours of Friday morning. “Change begins now.” His party is slated to claim at least 412 seats in the 650-seat House of Commons, according to the near-final results. The Conservatives, meanwhile, have been reduced so far to just 121 seats, marking the party’s worst performance in its nearly 200-year history. Labour will enjoy at least a 174-seat parliamentary majority, just shy of its record achieved under Tony Blair in 1997.

“Across our country, people will be waking up to the news, relieved that a weight has been lifted, a burden finally removed from the shoulders of this great nation,” Starmer said, pledging to restore hope to British families. “It is hope that may not burn brightly in Britain at the moment, but we have earned the mandate to relight the fire. That is the purpose of this party, and of this government.”

Britain's Labour Party leader Keir Starmer, center, is hugged as he arrives with his wife Victoria to deliver a speech during a victory rally at the Tate Modern in London early on July 5, 2024.
Starmer, center, is hugged as he arrives with his wife Victoria to deliver a speech at the Tate Modern in London early on July 5, 2024. Justin Tallis—AFP/Getty Images

Outgoing Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who said he called Starmer to congratulate him on Labour’s victory, told his constituents that the British people delivered “a sobering verdict” and claimed “responsibility for the loss.”

Sunak, who ascended to the premiership in 2022 on a promise to restore stability to the country after his immediate predecessors Liz Truss and Boris Johnson decimated public trust and tanked the British economy, is due to formally announce his resignation as Prime Minister later Friday. It remains to be seen whether he will continue being the Conservative Party’s leader or whether the Tories, as the Conservatives are known, will elect a new head to serve as the leader of the opposition.

Though it was a seismic result, it wasn’t much of a surprise. The Labour Party enjoyed a double-digit poll lead for more than a year before Sunak called the snap general election, which barely narrowed over the course of the six-week campaign. This was aided by a series of Conservative gaffes and scandals—the most damaging of which involved revelations that multiple Conservative Party staffers had allegedly placed bets on the date of the election using insider knowledge, in what is potentially a criminal offense—as well as the resurgence of arch-Brexiteer Nigel Farage, whose insurgent anti-immigration party Reform U.K. succeeded in siphoning off votes from the Conservatives in key constituencies.

So anticipated was a Labour victory that the Conservatives spent the last few days of the election campaign warning voters against handing Starmer a so-called “supermajority,” a meaningless term in the British political system, which unlike the U.S. context affords no additional legislative powers. That message, needless to say, did not break through. Among the most high-profile Conservatives to lose their seats were former (and short-lived) Prime Minister Truss and Grant Shapps, the country’s defense minister.

But perhaps the biggest surprise of the night was just how well the smaller parties performed. The centrist Liberal Democrats vaulted out of electoral irrelevance to become the third-largest party in the Commons. And Farage’s Reform U.K., which emerged in 2021 as a reincarnation of his previous political outfits, the Brexit Party and the U.K. Independence Party, managed to secure at least four seats—a record for a new party—putting them on par with the Greens. Farage, a key force behind Brexit and a close ally of Donald Trump, even secured a parliamentary seat of his own after seven failed attempts.

Although Labour won nearly two-thirds of the parliamentary seats, it will have done so with just a third of the total vote share. Under Britain’s “first past the post” electoral system, parties can win seats if their candidate secures the highest number of votes, regardless of whether that amount constitutes a majority of the votes cast. ​​Turnout was down across the country compared to the last general election in 2019, hovering around 60%. While this doesn’t diminish the scale of Labour’s victory, it could indicate the level of disillusionment that many Britons have felt going into this election—one that, despite the emphatic result, felt relatively dull and devoid of much policy discussion.

As the Conservatives retreat back into opposition, the Labour Party will now be tasked with bringing about the change they’ve promised. This includes articulating plans to address key campaign issues such as resuscitating Britain’s ailing National Health Service and strengthening the countries ties with its European partners—work that could conceivably begin as early as next week, when Starmer travels to Washington, D.C., for NATO’s 75th anniversary summit.

As tempted as some observers will be to declare this election result a new dawn in British politics, the reality is that Labour’s challenges in government have only just begun. “You’re going to have a Labour coalition that is incredibly broad but also incredibly shallow, and elected on a platform that doesn’t really address some of the massive problems the country faces,” says Anand Menon, the director of the U.K. in a Changing Europe think tank in London. If there’s such a thing as too much of a good thing, it’ll be this for Labour: The party can now claim a base that spans north and south, urban and rural, deprived and affluent. Balancing the needs of all these constituencies, and maintaining their support, will be a challenge.

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“Starmer could become very unpopular quite quickly,” Menon adds. “The only thing that really matters is whether they deliver—and that’s delivering on growth, delivering on public services, all the while having said we’re not going to raise certain taxes.”

Starmer admitted as much in his victory speech, acknowledging that “changing a country is not like flicking a switch—it’s hard, patient, and determined work.” Some observers note that Labour’s unwillingness to make any grand policy announcements during the campaign could help manage expectations, at least in the short term.

“Having promised precious little, there’s not much space for them to get much wrong,” Tony Travers, a professor of politics at the London School of Economics, told journalists in the run up to the vote. “They promised so little that the bar is set very low.”

Getting elected, even by as massive a margin as this, may prove to be the easiest task for Starmer. The change that Britons demand comes next—that will almost certainly be harder.

“Just how long does it take before the Labour Party becomes unpopular? Now some people say late on Friday, the fifth of July,” Travers says. “The electorate doesn’t tolerate much for very long.”

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