Opinion | Will The UK Tories Get At Least An Honourable Defeat?

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Cheltenham, a quintessential English town, has long been a Conservative stronghold, enjoying steadfast support from its predominantly White, affluent middle-class community. Less than two years ago, this town witnessed a fierce debate between Liz Truss and her Indian-origin rival, Rishi Sunak, at the final Conservative Party hustings of the leadership campaign.

Talking to people in Cheltenham at that time, one could sense a preference for Sunak over Truss among the townsfolk. However, it was the party members who had the final say in electing their leader, who would then become the Prime Minister. The majority of over 1,60,000 party voters chose Liz Truss. Her tenure, however, was brief, lasting fewer than 50 days, ultimately paving the way for Rishi Sunak to become the UK's first Indian-origin, non-White Prime Minister.

The Winds In Cheltenham

Fast forward to the present, Cheltenham, which forms part of the "Blue Wall" of Tory seats, is on the brink of falling, much like dozens of other seats across the country. Rishi Sunak faces the daunting possibility of presiding over one of the Conservative Party's worst election performances in history.

Recent poll estimates strengthen the fears within the Conservative Party of an "extinction-level event", as one publication described it. Conversely, the Labour Party appears poised for a historic victory. Latest seat projections suggest Labour winning 453 seats and the Conservatives just 115 out of a total of 650 seats in Parliament. These predictions evoke memories of the Indian National Congress's monumental defeat in the 2014 elections, which triggered debates about the party's very existence.

The repeated forecasts of a sweeping Labour victory have led several Tory leaders to publicly admit what they have been conceding in private: the country needs a strong opposition. Rather than confidently asserting their chances of victory, they are now urging voters to ensure that Labour does not secure an overwhelming majority. Senior Tory leader and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt told the media that if Labour won the general election, it would need an "effective opposition" in Parliament. Another leader urged voters not to give Labour a "super majority", warning of unchecked power. Minister Mel Stride conceded that Labour was heading towards "the largest majority virtually in the history of this country".

So, will it be a Tory loss or a Labour win?

Young Voters Are Turning To Labour

Several factors contribute to the dire situation in which Rishi Sunak's party finds itself. One of the most intriguing reasons is the mass exodus of young voters. According to a survey, all demographics are abandoning the party, but the most significant shift is among younger voters, with only one in ten under-40s expected to vote Conservative. Younger voters, who are more concerned with issues like climate change, social equality, and progressive values, are increasingly aligning themselves with Labour. The party's proactive stance on these issues has helped it capture the support of this crucial demographic.

Another reason, affecting all demographics, is public dissatisfaction with the government's handling of critical issues such as the economy, healthcare, and social services. The cost-of-living crisis has severely undermined public trust in the Conservative government's ability to manage the economy effectively. Additionally, the National Health Service (NHS) is under immense pressure, with long waiting times and staff shortages exacerbating public frustration.

Scandals and controversies have further tarnished the Conservative Party's image. The handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, including accusations of cronyism in the awarding of contracts and internal party conflicts, has damaged its reputation. High-profile resignations and ongoing leadership challenges have further highlighted instability within the party.

Labour's Promises

In stark contrast, the Labour Party has been gaining popularity by focusing on issues that resonate with the electorate. Labour's emphasis on social justice, economic reform, and investment in public services has struck a chord with many voters. The party's promises to address income inequality, improve the NHS, and invest in education and infrastructure have been well-received.

Labour leader Keir Starmer has actively worked to rid the party of extreme elements and focus on pragmatic policies. Starmer's efforts to present a united and competent front have paid off, allowing him to appeal to a broader base of voters. His measured and responsible approach to leadership has sharply contrasted with the perceived chaos within the Conservative Party.

Economic challenges have also contributed to the Conservatives' decline. Rising inflation, stagnant wages, and a growing cost-of-living crisis have eroded public trust in the Conservative government's ability to manage the economy effectively. 

First Boris Johnson, then Liz Truss and finally Rishi Sunak, must all take full responsibility for the impending debacles. The political landscape in the UK is undergoing significant changes. All these leaders have failed to grasp the mood of their voters and the winds of change that sweep across towns such as Cheltenham, which was once synonymous with Conservative loyalty but now stands as a symbol of the broader shift in political allegiance. As the UK approaches the next general election in two weeks, the potential for a historic Labour victory looms large. Whether this shift will lead to a sustained period of Labour dominance or a recalibration of Conservative strategy remains to be seen. 

(Syed Zubair Ahmed is a London-based senior Indian journalist with three decades of experience with the Western media)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author