Labour Party leader Keir Starmer and wife Victoria arrive at a polling station to cast their vote in London, Thursday, July 4, 2024. Voters in the U.K. are casting their ballots in a national election to choose the 650 lawmakers who will sit in Parliament for the next five years. Outgoing Prime Minister Rishi Sunak surprised his own party on May 22 when he called the election. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
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LONDON — Britain’s Labour Party was headed for a landslide victory in a parliamentary election on Thursday, an exit poll suggested, as voters punished the governing Conservatives after 14 years of economic and political upheaval.

The poll released moments after voting closed indicated that center-left Labour’s leader Keir Starmer will be the country’s next prime minister. He will face a jaded electorate impatient for change against a gloomy backdrop of economic malaise, mounting distrust in institutions and a fraying social fabric.

The historic defeat for the Conservatives leaves the party depleted and in disarray and will likely spark a contest to replace Prime Minister Rishi Sunak as leader.

“Nothing has gone well in the last 14 years,” said London voter James Erskine, who was optimistic for change in the hours before polls closed. “I just see this as the potential for a seismic shift, and that’s what I’m hoping for.”

While the suggested result appears to buck recent rightward electoral shifts in Europe, including in France and Italy, many of those same populist undercurrents flow in Britain. Reform UK leader Nigel Farage has roiled the race with his party’s anti-immigrant “take our country back” sentiment and undercut support for the Conservatives, who already faced dismal prospects.

Labour is on course to win about 410 seats in the 650-seat House of Commons and the Conservatives 131, according to the exit poll. That would be the fewest number of seats for the Tories in their nearly two-century history and would leave the party in disarray.

Former Conservative leader William Hague said the poll indicated “a catastrophic result in historic terms for the Conservative Party.”

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Still, Labour politicians, inured to years of disappointment, were cautious, with full results still hours off.

“The exit poll is encouraging, but obviously we don’t have any of the results yet,” deputy leader Angela Rayner told Sky News.

In a sign of the volatile public mood and anger at the system, some smaller parties appeared to have done well, including the centrist Liberal Democrats and Farage’s Reform UK.

The poll is conducted by pollster Ipsos and asks people at scores of polling stations to fill out a replica ballot showing how they have voted. It usually provides a reliable though not exact projection of the final result.

Britain has experienced a run of turbulent years — some of it of the Conservatives’ own making and some of it not — that has left many voters pessimistic about their country’s future. The U.K.’s exit from the European Union followed by the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine battered the economy, while lockdown-breaching parties held by then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his staff caused widespread anger.

Johnson’s successor, Liz Truss, rocked the economy further with a package of drastic tax cuts and lasted just 49 days in office. Rising poverty and cuts to state services have led to gripes about “Broken Britain.”

Hundreds of communities were locked in tight contests in which traditional party loyalties come second to more immediate concerns about the economy, crumbling infrastructure and the National Health Service.

west of London, voters like Patricia Mulcahy, who is retired, sensed the nation was looking for something different. The community, which normally votes Conservative, may change its stripes this time.

“The younger generation are far more interested in change,” Mulcahy said. “So, I think whatever happens in Henley, in the country, there will be a big shift. But whoever gets in, they’ve got a heck of a job ahead of them. It’s not going to be easy.”

In the first hour polls were open, Sunak made the short journey from his home to vote at Kirby Sigston Village Hall in northern England. He arrived with his wife, Akshata Murty, and walked hand-in-hand into the village hall, which is surrounded by rolling fields.

Labour has had a steady and significant lead in opinion polls for months, but its leaders warned in recent days against taking the election result for granted, worried their supporters would stay home.

“Change. Today, you can vote for it,” leader Starmer wrote Thursday on the X social media platform.

A couple of hours after posting that message, Starmer walked with his wife, Victoria, into a polling place in north London to cast his vote. He left through a back door out of sight of a crowd of residents and journalists who had gathered.

Labour has not set pulses racing with its pledges to get the sluggish economy growing, invest in infrastructure and make Britain a “clean energy superpower.”

But nothing has really gone wrong in its campaign, either. The party has won the support of large chunks of the business community and endorsements from traditionally conservative newspapers, including the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sun tabloid, which praised Starmer for “dragging his party back to the center ground of British politics.”

Former Labour candidate Douglas Beattie, author of the book “How Labour Wins (and Why it Loses),” said Starmer’s “quiet stability probably chimes with the mood of the country right now.”

The Conservatives, meanwhile, have been plagued by gaffes. The campaign got off to an inauspicious start when rain drenched Sunak as he made the announcement outside 10 Downing St. Then, Sunak went home early from commemorations in France marking the 80th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.

Several Conservatives close to Sunak are being investigated over suspicions they used inside information to place bets on the date of the election before it was announced.

Sunak has struggled to shake off the taint of political chaos and mismanagement that’s gathered around the Conservatives.

But for many voters, the lack of trust applies not just to the governing party, but to politicians in general.

“I don’t know who’s for me as a working person,” said Michelle Bird, a port worker in Southampton on England’s south coast who was undecided about whether to vote Labour or Conservative. “I don’t know whether it’s the devil you know or the devil you don’t.”

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