Working to make government more effective


It is time for a general election

Will voters be persuaded by Rishi Sunak's plea to stick with his plan or Keir Starmer's call for change?

A composite image of Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer on stage at the Conservative and Labour party conferences.
Whoever forms the next government will have an opportunity to quickly move on from the campaign, to draw a line under this last parliament and then turn its attention to the massive challenges facing Britain in 2024.

The country is ready for a general election – and will have high expectations of whichever party forms the next government, writes Hannah White

Rishi Sunak is right to have called time on this unusual Parliament. The last four and a half years have seen three prime ministers –  one deposed for law-breaking and another for precipitating a financial crisis five chancellors, a pandemic during which life in the UK and with that Parliament's ability to perform its role changed drastically, a dramatic shift in the UK’s constitutional status as it departed the EU, an energy and cost of living crisis caused by war in Europe and a steady stream of MPs leaving parliament or their party following ethical scandals.

The country is ready for a general election. That much was abundantly clear from the vox pops conducted around the UK by journalists in the first 24 hours after Rishi Sunak announced the poll.

The general election campaign is likely to frustrate voters

Democracy demands that voters be given a regular choice to stick with the government they know or to twist and try the alternative. By repealing the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act the Conservative Party reclaimed the responsibility for determining the precise timing of that choice. It is understandable that, having come into the top job three years into the parliament, Rishi Sunak wanted the opportunity to try his brand of conservative government before submitting to the judgment of the country. After briefly portraying himself as the change candidate, an unconvincing move after 14 years of Conservative rule, Sunak will now attempt to persuade the electorate that he has a plan, and that it would be a gamble to reject it. Keir Starmer, on the other hand, will try to convince voters that it is time for change.

While these sales pitches, and accompanying slogans, seem distinct, the election campaign is likely to see both parties continuing to compete to say as little as possible about how exactly they would address the enormous problems facing the country. The UK population is already tired of this phoney war, switching off as politicians argue over trivia, set traps for each other or avoid them by refusing to differentiate their policies for fear of attack. Manifestos will be published, TV debates may take place, and both Sunak and Starmer will be exposed to six weeks of intense scrutiny, but the general election campaign offers the least favourable conditions for a sudden end to the “plague on all your houses’ view of most voters, with trust in politics at an all-time low.

Expectations of whoever forms the next government are set high

Whoever forms the next government will have an opportunity to quickly move on from the campaign, to draw a line under this last parliament and then turn its attention to the massive challenges facing Britain in 2024.

Underpinning everything is the conundrum of the low growth that has characterised the UK economy since the financial crisis, with anaemic growth contributing to historic underinvestment in public services, since compounded by rampant inflation and a recruitment and retention crisis. Meanwhile external events have exacerbated a cost-of-living crisis which continues to define the future every day lives of voters.

The prime minister claims that the economy has turned a corner. While everyone must hope that he is correct – voters will have to decide whether or not the first traces of positive economic news feel significant enough to believe him and, if so, whether they give the conservative party any credit for it. 

They will also need to weigh up whether Keir Starmer and shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves would do a better or worse job. They will need to consider whether they prefer Labour’s doctrine of ‘service’ or the Conservative’s mantra of security, Sunak’s claimed record of ‘bold action’ or Labour’s promises of ‘change’. Over the next six weeks neither party is likely to spell out how they would actually find the money that under-performing public services so desperately needs. The next government cannot duck the question, however, and will quickly need to address this damaging uncertainty with a clear and coherent spending plans.

Whoever wins the general election, the most important outcome will be the bestowal of a new democratic mandate from the people. And whoever wins must use that mandate to address the accumulating and interlocking problems which face the UK. To do so they must be clear about what they want to achieve – and how they will achieve it. They must ensure the state has the capability and capacity it needs to develop and deliver evidence based policy. They must ensure decisions are taken at the right level and decision-makers are held accountable for their actions. And they must maintain the high ethical standards in public life that are the only hope for restoring trust in government.

The country is ready for an election, and expectations of whoever forms the next government are set high.

General election 2024

IfG experts set out what happens before and during a general election, how political parties and the civil service prepare for the election outcome and what it means for government.

Visit our election hub
Prime minister Rishi Sunak issues a statement outside 10 Downing Street, London, after calling a general election for 4 July.
Political party
Sunak government
Cabinet Office
Institute for Government

Related content