Starmer’s Labour Heads for Big Win, Election Exit Poll Says

(Bloomberg) -- Keir Starmer’s Labour Party is projected to win the UK general election with a huge majority, a result that would reflect a seismic realignment in British politics as Rishi Sunak’s governing Conservatives imploded.

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The official election exit poll predicted Labour will win 410 of the 650 seats in the House of Commons, the most since Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide victory, with a projected majority of 170. Sunak’s Tories are projected to slump to 131 seats, which would be their worst ever performance and would likely see some of the party’s biggest names voted out of Parliament. The Liberal Democrats and Nigel Farage’s populist Reform UK are also on track to make huge gains.

If the exit poll proves correct, Starmer is hours away from replacing Sunak as prime minister, completing what would be a remarkable turnaround since his left-wing predecessor Jeremy Corbyn led Labour to its worst performance in more than eight decades just five years ago.

When Starmer took over in 2020, it was assumed the Boris Johnson-led Tories would keep Labour out of power for at least another decade.

But Johnson’s administration collapsed under the weight of chaos and scandal, not least when he became the first sitting premier to be fined by the police over a rule-breaking party in Downing Street during the pandemic. His successor, Liz Truss, lasted 49 days — the shortest tenure in history but long enough to trigger a financial market meltdown. Since taking over in October 2022, Sunak — who had also been fined in the ‘Partygate’ scandal — failed to shake the sense that Britons had simply had enough.

It set the UK up for a massive political whiplash. Starmer capitalized on the Tory disarray by tacking to the political center ground, where British elections are traditionally won. He expelled Corbyn, and presented Labour as the party of economic stability. Rachel Reeves, a former Bank of England economist who is set to be the UK’s first female Chancellor of the Exchequer, has been central to Labour’s pitch for business to get behind Labour.

Markets have been sanguine in the face of a projected Labour victory, sending gauges of volatility to near multi-year lows across currency and bond markets. The pound was little changed against both the dollar and the euro in the immediate aftermath of the exit poll.

“Nobody in 2019 would’ve imagined this was possible,” Peter Mandelson, a former Labour minister and key force behind the 1997 win, said on the BBC.

Labour went into election day with a 20-point lead in Bloomberg’s UK poll of polls, a rolling 14-day average using data from 11 polling companies. The gap to the Tories had barely narrowed since Sunak caught his own party by surprise when he called a snap summer vote rather than wait until the autumn.

The exit poll is different, based on a survey of tens of thousands of people after they have cast their ballots. That’s generally made it accurate, predicting 368 seats for the Tories in 2019 against the 365 they ultimately won. The 650 House of Commons seats will be declared overnight.

For Starmer and Labour, the result looks set to end a miserable 14 years on the political sidelines as the Conservative government imposed years of austerity and led the UK out of the European Union, triggering political turmoil. The pressure on Starmer to follow up — as Blair did — with future wins is immense.

Yet there’s unlikely to be the same Cool Britannia-driven euphoria that greeted Blair in 1997. Brexit is still taking a toll on the UK economy, and Britons have endured a historic squeeze on living standards in the aftermath of the pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Starmer has said there’s “no magic wand” for a quick fix. But five years after the Corbyn-led nadir, it’s still the case that Labour is in a position almost nobody thought was possible, albeit aided by an ailing Conservative Party.

Starmer’s manifesto fell short of what some progressives and especially the left of his Labour Party wanted. But Labour’s argument is that in a cost-of-living crisis and against a Conservative Party – aided by supportive newspapers – determined to campaign on tax cuts, it was impossible for Starmer and Reeves to be more ambitious.

The exit poll also suggests the realignment extends across the UK. The Scottish National Party, the dominant force in Scotland for over a decade with its campaign for independence, is on course to take just 10 of Scotland’s 57 districts, down from 48 in 2019. The party has been in disarray after long-time leader Nicola Sturgeon stepped down, its governing partnership with the Scottish Greens imploded and police launched an investigation into its finances.

The Liberal Democrats also appear to have made major gains in the traditional Tory heartlands in southern England. The party is on course for 61 seats, according to the exit poll.

One of the main surprises in the exit poll is a better-than-expected showing for Farage’s Reform UK, with his party projected to win 13 seats including Hartlepool, Barnsley North and Great Yarmouth. Farage himself is forecast to win in Clacton, meaning he’s set to become an MP at his eighth attempt.

Reform’s success is one of the key factors that has helped Labour, polling expert John Curtice said on the BBC.

“Although this looks like an election that looks like Labour is going to get a landslide in seats, it does not necessarily follow that Labour had got a landslide in votes,” Curtice said. “Much of the damage being done to the Conservative Party tonight is done by Reform, even if it is Labour that is the beneficiary.”

For Sunak, the exit poll points to a defeat that has been on the cards for months. He has said he will stay on as an MP even if he’s removed or steps down as Tory leader — though some polls predict he may not keep his seat. His Tory party, meanwhile, faces a fractious battle over how to recover.

“It’s going to be an incredibly difficult night,” former Conservative minister Steve Baker said on the BBC, as the exit poll projected he would lose his seat. “It’s a pretty devastating night for the Conservative Party.”

--With assistance from Greg Ritchie.

(Updates with Labour comment in eighth paragraph, details throughout.)

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