Labour scores big win in UK: Keir Starmer takes over as prime minister

Labour gains more than 200 seats in historic victory as Rishi Sunak's Tories are crushed, third parties surge

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor
Published July 4, 2024 6:01PM (EDT)
Updated July 5, 2024 11:13AM (EDT)
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer campaigns in Hitchin, England, on July 1, 2024. (Carl Court/Getty Images)
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer campaigns in Hitchin, England, on July 1, 2024. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

The British Labour Party, which has been out of power since 2010, has won a huge majority in the British Parliament — although the verdict of the electorate is not quite as overwhelming as the numerical results suggest. Keir Starmer, the moderate who has led Labour since the party's crushing defeat under left-wing legend Jeremy Corbyn in 2019, literally became prime minister overnight, after the resignation of Rishi Sunak, who has said he will also resign as leader of the Conservative Party after its devastating collapse at the polls. 

At least Sunak managed to hold his own seat in Parliament, although many ministers in his outgoing government were defeated. Sunak conceded defeat in a congratulatory phone call to Starmer at around 6 a.m. British time, and announced his resignation a few hours later in front of the prime minister's famous front door at 10 Downing Street in London. In other headline-shaping events, far-right dissident Nigel Farage won a seat in Parliament for the first time, and his anti-immigrant Reform U.K. party clearly played a major role in the Conservatives' epic defeat. The Scottish National Party, which in the last decade became the leading political force in Scotland, was nearly wiped off the electoral map, losing most of its seats to a Labour surge.

Yet despite the overwhelming scale of Labour's victory, its overall vote count is up only slightly from five years ago, and Labour lost several seats to independent candidates. One such case is especially ironic: Corbyn, the now-expelled former Labour leader, successfully defended his longtime London seat against his old party's official candidate.

Final results indicate that Labour won 412 seats in the 650-seat House of Commons, a net gain of 209. It's a nearly unprecedented electoral swing, creating one of the largest parliamentary majorities in British history (just five seats short of the majority won by Tony Blair's "New Labour" in 1997). Some commentators had suggested an even bigger win, along the lines of 450 to 500 seats, but no one in Starmer’s party will express disappointment at this historic turnaround.

But the big news here is the devastating defeat suffered by the Tories (i.e., Conservatives), historically the most successful center-right political party in any Western-style liberal democracy. They have suffered a net loss of 244 seats since 2019, and while most of those went to Labour this time, a few were won by Reform U.K. and a surprisingly large number to the centrist Liberal Democrats, who seemed nearly irrelevant after a series of electoral setbacks and political failures but have achieved their best result in decades. For the Tories, this election comes very close to a worst-case scenario, and their final count of 121 seats is the lowest in the party's 192-year history.

Minor-party results will also be a big part of this election's narrative. The Liberal Democrats gained 60 seats from their previous total of just 11. Farage's Reform U.K., a right-wing nationalist party founded in 2020, won just four seats — from a starting point of zero — but damaged the Tories immeasurably by draining off conservative-leaning voters in scores of parliamentary districts. The Scottish National Party, plagued by a series of internal scandals, has apparently lost all but nine of its previous 48 seats to Labour. Other small parties also made modest improvements, with the Greens and Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party, each winning four seats.

Although Northern Ireland technically remains part of the U.K., the major British parties do not generally contest seats there. This election marks a turning point in that province, with Sinn Féin, the largely Catholic republican party that advocates a united Ireland, emerging as the largest single party, winning seven of the 18 parliamentary seats. In fairness, that result partly reflects an internal schism among the Protestant-dominated unionist parties that want Northern Ireland to remain British. 

Sunak and Starmer both paid ritual visits to King Charles III at Buckingham Palace on Friday morning, British time — the former to tender his official resignation, and the latter to be "asked" by the monarch to form a new government, as tradition demands.

MORE FROM Andrew O'Hehir