General Election 2024 written on a sign with Elizabeth Tower and Big Ben in the background
Category: Discovery & Impact

Title: What the UK Elections Could Mean for British Foreign Policy From a Georgetown SFS Professor, Transatlantic Relations Expert

People across the United Kingdom will hit the polls on July 4 to determine the next British government.

Jeffrey Anderson in a blazer speaking at a podium indoors
Jeffrey Anderson is a professor in the School of Foreign Service and the College of Arts & Sciences who works at the intersection of comparative political economy and European integration.

The move comes after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called for snap elections in May, with his Conservative Party in danger of losing its 14-year rule of Parliament to the opposition Labour Party led by Keir Starmer.

“Any party that has been in power this long will confront growing fatigue and dissatisfaction within the electorate,” said Jeffrey Anderson, professor in the School of Foreign Service and the College of Arts & Sciences. “The Sunak government appears to be heading for an election defeat of historic proportions as voters weigh in on fourteen years of austerity, the chaos of Brexit and its aftermath, the perceived collapse of social services, and a growing sense that the UK is adrift at home and in the world.”

Here are Anderson’s other takes on whether the election could signal a wider electoral trend abroad and how a possible Labour government could impact the UK’s foreign policy, from relations with the U.S. and European Union to the prospects of Scottish independence.

Ask a Professor: Jeffrey Anderson on Labour Foreign Policy and Global Electoral Trends

What are the main issues on voters’ minds as they head to the polls on July 4?

There are three main substantive issues of concern to voters: the state of the National Health Service (NHS), immigration and the economy. A string of recent scandals involving government ministers has also placed the basic competence and ethics of the incumbent Tory government on the agenda as well. 

How might other political parties and actors affect the outcome of the election?

The main beneficiary of the Tory Party’s collapse in support will be the main opposition Labour Party, led by Keir Starmer. Labour is looking to reclaim votes in what were once its electoral strongholds of Northern England, Scotland and Wales, and to woo centrist voters with its moderate economic and social platform, a marked change from previous left-wing Labour leadership under Jeremy Corbyn. 

The big wild cards in the election are two smaller parties, the Liberal-Democrats, a centrist party that will appeal to disaffected moderate Tory voters who can’t quite bring themselves to vote Labour, and the right-wing Reform Party, led by Brexit-firebrand Nigel Farage, which will siphon off votes from the Tory Party on its right flank. Either way, the Tory Party loses, it would appear. 

What effect could the election have on the status of Northern Ireland and the movement for Scottish independence?

The expected Labour Party victory will have no immediate impact on the status of Northern Ireland or the Scottish independence movement. The new government, however, will bring to power a leadership group, led by Starmer, that will be well-received in Dublin as well as key elements in Belfast that want to repair relations with the UK after the upheaval and acrimony produced by Brexit.

 As for Scotland, the independence movement has been sidetracked of late by infighting within the Scottish National Party, and so a new Labour government is not likely to create a markedly new political dynamic inside Scotland. In fact, a more sympathetic government in London may further weaken the drive for political independence. 

Conservative factions swept through the European Parliamentary elections in early June. What would be the significance of a Labour victory in the UK when much of Europe seems to be moving right?

Hard to say – given the very different political-institutional context in the UK as well as the fact that the UK is now formally outside of “Europe” (as defined by EU membership). It’s quite possible that the anticipated election result in July will not resonate in any meaningful way beyond the English Channel. Although the result will go against the more general “swing to the right” we’ve seen in Europe, exemplified by the June elections to the European Parliament, it’s not likely to serve as a beacon of hope for center-left parties in Europe. 

It’s not likely to serve as a beacon of hope for center-left parties in Europe. 

Jeffrey Anderson

The UK is just one of many countries holding major elections this year. Are there any global electoral trends you’re tracking, and how does the UK fit into those trends if at all?

Just as the anticipated Labour election victory is unlikely to serve as a beacon of hope for the left in Europe, it’s not likely to be a vanguard of a left revival anywhere else. I’m thinking here specifically of the United States. If the July election result in the UK is to fit into any broader trend, it may be simply that it’s hard to be an incumbent government, particularly one that’s been in power for a very long time, and win re-election. In that sense, Joe Biden and the Democrats may benefit from the fact that it’s only been four years, not 14. 

How would the UK’s policy on Ukraine change if the Labour Party were to take over Parliament?

The Labour Party leadership has already pledged “iron-clad” support for Ukraine in its fight against Putin. I do not expect any change at all in the UK’s posture on Ukraine in the aftermath of the election.

How would a Labour-led government affect the UK’s relations with the European Union and major states like France and Germany?

Relations between the UK and Europe would certainly improve under a Labour Government, but Starmer will have to tread warily here – anything that smacks of a revisiting of the Brexit decision would generate an unnecessary, noisy domestic distraction from his government’s agenda, which is to govern competently and get some things done (in contrast to public perceptions of the Tories). 

My guess is the new government will focus on some low-hanging fruit that will carry domestic appeal – easing restrictions on travel to and from the continent, facilitating university collaboration and student exchange, resetting the UK-EU understanding over the Northern Ireland protocol – and let the broader relationship take its course within current parameters. Long-term, I think Labour would indeed like to revisit the Brexit decision, but public opinion is still a long way from actively entertaining that option, even though there is strong evidence of “buyer’s remorse” within the electorate over the Brexit decision back in 2016. 

How would a change in leadership in the UK affect the transatlantic relationship with the U.S.?

The current state of the US-UK relationship is healthy and stable, if somewhat constrained by the UK government’s domestic weaknesses and absence from the EU table in Brussels. The relationship would improve marginally with a new Labour government, if only because of the prospect of better relations between the UK and Ireland, an issue of some importance to the Biden administration. Of course, if Donald Trump wins the election in November, all bets are off.