UK general election 2024: What are the key issues shaping the vote?

Candidates are promising to fix Britain’s domestic woes as the top two parties look set to lose votes over their positions on Israel’s war on Gaza.

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer and Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak debate
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer, left, is expected to unseat Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in the July 4 elections [Jonathan Hordle/ITV/Handout via Reuters]

Across the United Kingdom, a record number of candidates – more than 4,000 – are campaigning for the July 4 general election.

Polling suggests the vote will result in a Labour majority after more than a decade of Conservative rule under five leaders, including current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and David Cameron, now foreign secretary.

But there is an intensifying atmosphere of division as the hard-right party Reform, led by the populist Nigel Farage, appears on track to improve on its performance in the 2019 elections when it was known as the Brexit Party.

Economic stagnation, a housing crisis, the cost of living, immigration and foreign policy concerns are high on the agenda.

Looking ahead, the only certainty is that any future government is set to inherit a country facing significant challenges.

Let’s break down some of the key issues:

The economy: ‘It has been slow growth for essentially everyone’

The past 15 years have seen the worst income growth in the UK for generations, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS).

“It has been slow growth for essentially everyone – rich and poor, old and young. This means that even while income inequality has been stable, progress on reducing absolute poverty has been painfully slow,” Tom Waters, an associate director of the IFS, said in late May.

In recent years, Britons have also been battling a cost-of-living crisis as prices surge and salaries stagnate.

The Conservative and Labour parties have set out differing routes to fix the economy.

Labour leader Keir Starmer has announced plans to reform the National Health Service, home-building system, energy sector and other key industries. His party has also promised 7.4 billion pounds ($9.4bn) in tax rises to invest in these sectors.

For the Conservatives, a promise of 17 billion pounds ($21.6bn) per year of tax cuts has been made, including 2 percentage points off the main rate of National Insurance contributions, a mandatory tax on salaries.

Interactive_UK Elections in maps and charts 2024_5_Key issues-1719503121

The housing crisis: ‘Made much worse by austerity measures’

Rising property prices, rent hikes and a lack of affordable new builds are the reasons behind a years-long housing crisis.

According to the Local Government Association, the number of temporary accommodations due to the shortage of social housing rose by 89 percent in the 10 years until March 2023.

The growing pressure on local councils to support the public intensified through austerity measures intended to reduce the government’s budget deficit that were implemented when a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition came to power in 2010.

Mia Gray, an economic geography professor at the University of Cambridge, told Al Jazeera that Britain is in the grips of “an affordable housing crisis”.

“The reasons for this are complicated but have been made much worse by austerity measures and, in particular, the budget for local government.

“We know that in 2020-2021, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities budgeted only 52 percent, in real terms, of what it budgeted in 2009-2010 for communities, including support for new housing.

“These are staggering figures. We should all be shocked.”

To remedy this, the Conservatives have pledged to build 1.6 million new homes if they win the general election.

Labour officials said they will restore local house-building targets, which were scrapped in 2023, with an aim to construct 1.5 million new homes in the coming years.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks with fishermen during a visit to the Red Lion Hotel, Bideford, while campaigning in North Devon on June 18, 2024 [Ben Birchall/Pool via Reuters]

Health: Waiting lists are at all-time highs

Health is second only to the cost of living on YouGov’s “most important issues” tracker for Britons ahead of the vote, with 34 percent of respondents listing it.

The official number of people on waiting lists for treatment on the National Health Service (NHS) stood at 7.6 million in April this year – only slightly down from last September’s record high of 7.8 million.

Meanwhile, the proportion of people waiting more than four hours to see a doctor at Accident & Emergency departments of hospitals in the UK – a key indicator used to measure the NHS – has risen steadily over the 14 years that the ruling Conservative Party has been in power. While it stood at about 6 percent at the start of 2011, it passed 50 percent in December 2022 and has only come back down to about 42 percent now.

In their manifesto for the general election, the Conservatives have promised to increase the budget for the NHS but, for many, it is too little, too late.

Favourite Labour has promised to cut NHS waiting times by adding 40,000 more health appointments each week and doubling the number of cancer scanners in a bid to cut cancer treatment waiting times. The government’s 62-day waiting time standard for cancer treatment has not been met in recent years, according to parliamentary data published in March.

The Liberal Democrats want to increase the number of doctors and raise pay for care workers, while the Reform Party, led by Nigel Farage, has promised to cut taxes for front-line NHS and social care staff and offer tax relief on private healthcare.

Immigration: A heated election issue

A recent YouGov poll carried out for Sky News suggested that 43 percent of Britons believe immigration has a negative impact on society, compared with 35 percent who said the effect of immigration is positive.

The Conservatives have repeatedly pledged to crack down on the number of people arriving through irregular means, such as those who cross the English Channel from France on small boats. On Wednesday, the party was dealt a blow as official figures showed 882 people arrived in this way, the highest daily toll since late 2022.

Sunak’s government has backed a highly controversial plan to deport undocumented people to Rwanda to have their asylum claims processed there. But the deal has been blocked several times by courts that ruled the plan unlawful.

In the two years since it was announced, no flights have taken off to Rwanda. Sunak says the first flight will leave on July 24 at the earliest, assuming he wins the election.

The Labour Party says if it wins, the Rwanda plan will be scrapped. At the same time, it has promised to cut down net migration figures without elaborating on how it will do so.

Right-wing candidate Farage has called for tough policies around immigration, which he blames for many societal woes.

“Immigration is the real reason for the housing crisis!” Farage posted on X on Thursday.

Immigration as a campaign issue cannot be detached from Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.

According to supporters of figures like Farage, net migration levels have remained high since Brexit.

In 2023, net migration hit 685,000, according to estimates from the Migration Observatory. This was driven less by EU citizens arriving for work and study and more so by asylum-seeking Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s war.

British opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer
British opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer speaks to staff members of Morrisons supermarket during a campaign event in Wiltshire, Britain [Hannah McKay/Reuters]

Ukraine: Will a new UK leader adopt a ‘whatever it takes’ attitude?

After Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, the UK pledged unwavering support to Ukraine with Sunak referring to the bond between the West and Kyiv as an “unbreakable alliance”.

At the recent Group of Seven (G7) summit in Italy, Sunak told his counterparts that the UK was behind Ukraine “whatever it takes”.

He also urged G7 leaders to be “decisive” and end “Putin’s illegal war at this critical moment”.

So far, the UK has pledged 12.5 billion pounds ($15.9bn) in support, including 7.6 billion pounds ($9.6bn) in military assistance.

Britain is one of the leading donors to Ukraine alongside the United States and Germany.

Labour has maintained that its support for Ukraine is “ironclad”.

The party said it would work with Kyiv’s government to “isolate Russia diplomatically and boost Ukraine’s industrial production”.

“We will also work to create a clear path to NATO membership for Ukraine,” the party said in its manifesto.

Gaza: ‘Anger’ amid elusive calls for an immediate ceasefire

For the thousands of Britons who have protested for peace in Gaza for the past eight months, the July 4 elections present an opportunity to have their voices heard.

In May, a YouGov poll commissioned by Medical Aid for Palestinians and the Council for Arab-British Understanding found that more than 70 percent of British people want an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

Israel’s deadliest war on Gaza has killed almost 40,000 Palestinians. The historic Israel-Palestine conflict escalated after Hamas, which governs Gaza, led an incursion into southern Israel on October 7, during which 1,139 people were killed and about 250 were taken captive.

Among those who want a ceasefire, 67 percent are Conservative voters and 86 percent are Labour voters, according to the poll.

Neither party has vociferously called for an immediate ceasefire.

Some pro-Palestinian voters who traditionally would have voted Labour are expected to abandon the party. But the impact of this is not clear; some experts said the effect will be limited amid the general upswell of support for Labour.

For Kamal Hawwash, a British-Palestinian professor who is standing as an independent candidate in Birmingham Selly Oak, his decision to leave Labour came after Starmer said Israel had the right to cut off water and electricity to Gaza after October 7.

Starmer later backtracked and said he had meant Israel had the right to defend itself, but many Muslim voters have held his comments against him.

Now, the Labour Party has pledged to recognise a Palestinian state as part of a peace process “which results in a two-state solution with a safe and secure Israel alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state”.

Tahir Talati, an imam, recently told Al Jazeera that most of his community has “flatly said we’re not going to be voting for the Labour Party in this election”.

“[Starmer] needs to call out a genocide when it’s a genocide,” he said.

Reflecting on the pro-Palestine movement, he added: “The immediate reaction, one was of anger as you could see by the hundreds of thousands who come out on the streets of London every week. The other was also, let’s take a step back to see what the community can do to ensure that the voices of the Muslim community are represented at the highest levels of British government.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies