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Britain swings to the center-left in a historic U.K. election landslide

Labour Leader Keir Starmer celebrates winning the 2024 general election with a speech at Tate Modern in London on Friday.
Ricky Vigil
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Getty Images Europe
Labour Leader Keir Starmer celebrates winning the 2024 general election with a speech at Tate Modern in London on Friday.

Updated July 05, 2024 at 17:22 PM ET

LONDON — An earthquake in British politics.

With far-right parties ascendant in France and elsewhere in Europe, the United Kingdom has swung in the opposite direction. Official election results Friday showed a landslide victory for the country’s center-left Labour Party — its first victory in 19 years, since under the leadership of Tony Blair.

Incoming Prime Minister Keir Starmer hailed his win as historic, saying early Friday: “Change begins now.”

Later Friday, he gave his first speech outside the prime minister's residence at 10 Downing Street, saying, he will lead a “government of service” on a “mission of national renewal” and promised to "rebuild Britain."

For the Conservatives — the party of Margaret Thatcher, Boris Johnson and outgoing Prime Minister Rishi Sunak — it was the worst defeat in their party’s nearly 200-year history. Prominent lawmakers including former Prime Minister Liz Truss, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Penny Mordaunt lost their seats in Parliament. Sunak retained his seat but resigned Friday as Conservative Party leader, and apologized to the country.

Britain's Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader Rishi Sunak delivers a speech after retaining his seat as MP for Richmond and Northallerton in Northallerton, north of England, early Friday.
Temilade Adelaja / Pool/AFP via Getty Images
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Pool/AFP via Getty Images
Britain's outgoing prime minister and Conservative Party leader, Rishi Sunak, delivers a speech after retaining his seat in Parliament for Richmond and Northallerton in Northallerton, north of England, early Friday.

“I am sorry. I have given this job my all but you have sent a clear signal, that the government of the United Kingdom must change,” Sunak told reporters as he and his wife left the prime minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street for the last time. “I have heard your anger, your disappointment and I take responsibility for this loss.”

After 14 years in power, the Conservatives were punished at the polls for all the tumult that occurred on their watch: Brexit, which most Britons now regret; Johnson’s partygate scandal, in which the then-prime minister threw parties while the country was under COVID-19 lockdown and then Johnson lied about them; and the disastrous 2022 budget of Johnson’s successor, Truss, which sent shockwaves through financial markets.

Britain now has more children in poverty than any other wealthy country, according to the United Nations. Without London, some estimate it is poorer than Mississippi, the poorest state in the U.S.

Greens and Nigel Farage's Reform UK also had a good night

Smaller parties also made gains in this election. The environmentalist Green Party had its most successful election night ever, winning a record four seats — up from one in the last parliamentary election in 2019. The centrist Liberal Democrats multiplied their representation in Parliament.

And the far-right, anti-immigrant Reform UK party will enter Parliament for the first time, with five seats — among them, one for its leader, Brexiteer Nigel Farage, who ran and lost seven times previously. Reporters earlier indicated the party had won four seats, but a fifth seat went to Reform following a recount.

In Scotland, the once-hegemonic Scottish National Party — which has lobbied for Scottish independence from Britain — was decimated, with Labour taking most of the SNP’s seats.

In Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K, the nationalist Sinn Fein party — which wants Northern Ireland to gain independence from Britain and join the Republic of Ireland to its south — won the most seats, becoming the region’s biggest party in the U.K. Parliament.

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It wasn’t a full sweep for Labour, though. The party lost four former strongholds to independent, pro-Palestinian candidates,as anger over the war in Gaza led to some shock losses for the party in what was otherwise a triumphant night.

World leaders congratulate Starmer

Congratulations came pouring in Friday for Starmer.

President Biden spoke with the incoming prime minister Friday telling him he "looks forward to working closely" with him, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. She noted the "special relationship between our countries" and that Biden will welcome Starmer to Washington next week during the NATO leaders’ summit.

The leaders of Australia and New Zealand also congratulated the new prime minister.

China, meanwhile, had the following reaction: "China hopes to work with the U.K. to advance China-U.K. relations along the right track based on mutual respect and win-win cooperation," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said Friday.

Starmer is already prime minister

Unlike the lame-duck period in the United States or elsewhere, after a general election in the U.K., the monarch invites the leader of the party that’s won the most seats in the House of Commons to become prime minister and form a government.

Labour Party leader Starmer, who is a knight, has already had his meeting with King Charles III and has formally become the U.K. prime minister.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.
Fatima Al-Kassab
[Copyright 2024 NPR]