Why did the Conservative Party suffer a crushing defeat in the UK?
Published: Jul 08, 2024 08:48 PM
Illustration: Liu Xidan/GT

Illustration: Liu Xidan/GT

As predicted by exit polls, the UK general election ended with a devastating defeat for the Conservative Party, with Labour winning a resounding majority in parliament. Since 2010, the Conservative Party has held 10 Downing Street, and this change of power marks the end of an era. The British people have expressed their view toward the development of the country and the future of the nation through an eventful election campaign. 

Over the past 14 years, there has been a fundamental shift in domestic and foreign policy in the UK, especially since Brexit in 2016. The country's domestic politics has entered a period of heightened volatility, with a merry-go-round of prime ministers providing limited stability. Cost of living issues remain unresolved, economic growth is weak, and politicians lack the courage and confidence to truly face fundamental social challenges. As early as two years ago, polls showed a significant lead for the Labour Party over the Conservatives, so the outcome of this election was expected. Many have viewed the election outcome as a vote against the Conservative Party's rule, which is at least a "change." As for whether it is "the future and hope," voters seem to largely no longer care.

The fundamental problem at the heart of the Conservative government is that it has become seriously out of touch with the basic needs of the people, unable to truly respond to and solve longstanding social livelihood issues. The British people are not lacking in patience and resilience. Even the 2008 global financial crisis did not completely drain the confidence and vitality of British society. However, the Conservative government, lacking in courage and determination, did not earnestly address social issues with a strong sense of social responsibility. During negotiations around Brexit, the most concerning social issues for the British people were employment opportunities and national welfare. However, many elites only cared about abstract data and hollow arguments about economic growth, meaning public confidence in the government to effectively listen to social needs ultimately fell short. 

Secondly, the Conservative government in the UK has been severely constrained by ideological limitations over an extended period of long time, unable to construct an effective foreign policy agenda that aligned with the fundamental interests of the UK. Against the backdrop of great power competition, in recent years the UK has completely leaned toward the US when it came to international affairs, becoming one of Washington's most loyal pawns. This diplomatic stance fundamentally restricts the space for independent UK diplomacy and erodes the cultural advantages and international influence inherited from the 20th century. On the issue of China, the Conservative government in the UK has always been stuck in the nostalgia of empire, living in the cocoon of their constructed ideology, unwilling and afraid to face the rapidly changing real world, and constantly fantasizing about challenging the core diplomatic interests of China. The Sunak government closely followed US policy, describing China as an "epoch-defining systemic challenge" to Western society. Shortly after the G7 summit, they even threatened to make China "pay a price" for their stance on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. How can the a Conservative government, holding onto Western centrism, realize a "Global Britain?" It's clear to everyone that it was just empty rhetoric.

Now, left-wing political parties in the UK have achieved a sweeping victory which sharply contrasts with the powerful right-wing forces marching toward power on the European continent. However, upon closer examination of the basic positions of the UK Labour Party and the right-wing parties in Europe, it is not difficult to see that the status of elite political culture in the contemporary European political landscape is in jeopardy. Is this a temporary political change or an irreversible future for European politics? It should be noted that the global economic landscape has undergone profound changes. What position will the UK hold in an evolving global economy? Correspondingly, how should domestic politics in the UK, especially economic and livelihood issues, be addressed? Will the political elites of the Conservatives still have a place in the future political life of the UK? The "de-elitization" and fragmentation of European politics are becoming increasingly apparent, and perhaps in 10 years, the Conservatives will still exist, but their core values and political principles will be forced to change beyond recognition if they want to maintain a seat around Britain's top political table.

The author is director of the Center for British Studies at Shanghai International Studies University and a senior fellow of the Beijing Club for International Dialogue at the China Public Diplomacy Association. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn