The Conservatives Have Run Britain for 14 Years. How Has That Worked Out? (2024)

By Josh Holder and Ademola Bello

Since Britain’s Conservative Party took power 14 years ago, most things have not gone the way it planned.

The Conservatives Have Run Britain for 14 Years. How Has That Worked Out? (1)

Change

since 2010

+5,000%

+210%

+1,300%

+210%

Food bank

use

Graduate

debt

Asylum

backlog

Hospital

waiting lists

Worsened

+170%

+120%

Homeless-

ness

Net

migration

–60%

A political liability for the Conservatives, who had vowed to reduce migration.

–27%

–32%

+39%

+40%

Government

debt

Local gov.

budgets

Timely cancer

treatment

Knife

crime

+12%

–25%

Taxes

Number of

troops

+4%

–0.5%

About

the same

Avg. weekly

earnings

Number of

police

+15%

+9%

University

enrollment

State

pension value

–44%

One of the few economic indicators that have improved since 2010.

Unemploy-

ment

–54%

Crime

–60%

Energy from

fossil fuels

Improved

The Conservatives Have Run Britain for 14 Years. How Has That Worked Out? (2)

Worsened

+5,000%

+210%

+1,300%

+210%

Food bank

use

Graduate

debt

Asylum

backlog

Hospital

waiting lists

+170%

+120%

Homeless-

ness

Net

migration

–60%

Productivity

growth

A political liability for the Conservatives, who had vowed to reduce migration.

+40%

–27%

–32%

+39%

Local gov.

budgets

Timely

cancer

treatment

Knife

crime

Gov.

debt

+12%

–25%

Taxes

Number of

troops

+4%

–0.5%

Avg. weekly

earnings

Number of

police

About

the same

+9%

+15%

State

pension

value

University

enrollment

–44%

One of the few economic indicators that have improved since 2010.

Unemploy-

ment

–54%

Crime

–60%

Energy from

fossil fuels

Improved

The Conservatives Have Run Britain for 14 Years. How Has That Worked Out? (3)

Worsened

Change

since

2010

+5,000%

+210%

+1,300%

+210%

Food

bank

use

Graduate

debt

Asylum

backlog

+170%

+120%

Home-

lessness

Net

migration

–60%

Product-

ivity

growth

A political liability for the Conservatives, who had vowed to reduce migration.

+40%

–27%

–32%

+39%

Gov.

debt

Local gov.

budgets

Timely

cancer

treatment

Knife

crime

+12%

–25%

Taxes

Number

of troops

+4%

–0.5%

About

the

same

Avg.

weekly

earnings

Number

of police

+15%

+9%

University

enroll-

ment

State

pension

value

–44%

One of the few economic indicators that have improved since 2010.

Unemploy

ment

–54%

Crime

–60%

Energy

from fossil

fuels

Improved

The Conservative Party has dramatically reshaped Britain since 2010, orchestrating its exit from the European Union, slashing spending on public services and cutting welfare spending. Time and again, British voters have returned the party to power.

But Britons say their country is worse off now than when the Conservatives took office. Their dissatisfaction emerges on almost every issue they are asked about, from the economy to education to the National Health Service.

With the Conservatives facing the possibility of a crushing defeat in Thursday’s election, we took a look at how Britain has changed since they came to power. To do so, we chose the metrics that voters — and the party itself — say matter the most.

No single measure can capture the Britain of 2024, of course, but taken together, these metrics offer a snapshot of decline.

The Economy Has Stagnated

Average productivity growth has declined since 2010…

Source: Office for National Statistics. Note: 10-year rolling average.

... and average weekly earnings, when adjusted for inflation, are barely higher.

Source: Office for National Statistics

Britain’s economy has been stagnant ever since the 2008 financial crash, and the pandemic also hit it hard. Many of its peers, including Germany and the United States, managed to recapture pre-crisis levels of economic growth, but Britain never regained its momentum.

Productivity, a measure of economic output for every hour worked, was growing at about 2 percent per year in the decade before the financial crash. Since the Conservatives took power, it has grown by only about 0.5 percent per year.

One consequence of stagnant productivity is stagnant wages: The average British worker earns just £20 more per week than 14 years ago, after adjusting for inflation.

Austerity budgets explain a lot of the stagnation.

The new Conservative government, intent on reducing the deficit, cut deep and broad, slashing spending not just on party bugbears like welfare but also on public budgets for investment.

Following the vote to leave the European Union, private investment also ground to a halt amid economic uncertainty. The U.K. has the lowest rates of investment among G7 countries, according to the Institute for Public Policy Research, a think tank based in London.

The Conservatives took power bemoaning the “debt crisis” and saying deep cuts were necessary to reduce the public debt. But even after a decade of austerity, it continued to rise, and then jumped sharply because of the pandemic.

Britain’s debt as a share of G.D.P. has ballooned since 2010

Source: Office for National Statistics

The Conservatives also positioned themselves as a party of low taxation, pledging to reduce taxes in every election manifesto since 2010. The opposite happened.

Taxation as a share of G.D.P. has risen to its highest level in 70 years

Source: Office for Budget Responsibility

More people have been dragged into higher tax brackets, and those at all income levels were hit when the nationwide sales tax was raised to 20 percent from 17.5 percent.

The Conservatives argue that the taxation is needed to reduce debt and cover the cost of measures introduced to counter economic shocks like the pandemic and the energy price crisis tied to the war in Ukraine.

The party did fulfill one of its pledges.

Unemployment has roughly halved since 2010, when the U.K. was just emerging from recession. Conservative policy makers argue that their welfare changes, aimed at making benefits less attractive and employment more rewarding, motivated people to return to the workforce. Some researchers found that the changes did modestly encourage people to work.

Public Services Are Struggling

More than 7.5 million people are now waiting for hospital treatment...

Source: N.H.S. England

… and the share of cancer patients who start treatment within two months is at a record low.

Source: N.H.S. England

The picture the Conservatives painted of Britain in 2010 was of a country living beyond its means. They detailed £6.2 billion, or about $9 billion, of spending cuts within their first two weeks in office, and severe cuts continued for the next decade.

Fourteen years later, despite record debt and the highest tax burden in 70 years, many of Britain’s public services are greatly diminished.

Local councils, which run services like social care, libraries, waste management, and local infrastructure, bore some of the deepest cuts, with their spending power dropping almost 30 percent by 2019.

Even the National Health Service, which was ring-fenced from cuts, has been under intense pressure. Its budgets have not risen in line with the increasing demands of Britain’s aging population, and cuts to the social care sector forced more vulnerable people into hospitals.

Britons rank health care as the second-most-pressing issue facing the country. Going into the election, four times as many voters believe Labour is better placed to manage the National Health Service as the Conservatives.

Outside the N.H.S., almost no department was spared from cuts. Troop numbers in the armed forces were reduced by more than 40,000.

Policing was also cut significantly, but during the 2019 election Boris Johnson pledged to stand for the “law abiding majority” and restore the 20,000 police officers that had been lost — a promise he fulfilled.

The number of armed forces personnel has been reduced by 44,000…

Source: House of Commons Library

... but the number of police officers has rebounded, after dropping for a decade.

Source: House of Commons Library

Record Levels of Immigration, Despite Conservative Pledges

The Conservatives vowed to reduce net migration, but it reached a record high.

Source: Home Office

The Conservative party long promised to reduce immigration, and the pledge to “take back control” of Britain’s borders was one of the top reasons many Britons voted to leave the European Union.

But legal immigration has soared in recent years. Net migration — the number of people who moved to Britain minus those who left — reached 764,000 in 2022, almost three times as high as when votes were cast for Brexit.

The migration spike in 2022 was largely driven by specific events, and it has already shown signs of subsiding. Some of the increase was likely migration delayed by the pandemic, and hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, Hong Kongers and Afghans all fled to Britain on humanitarian visa programs.

Much of the debate around migration is being driven by record numbers of small-boat crossings across the channel, even though they only account for about 2 percent of migration to the U.K.

A huge backlog of unresolved asylum claims has grown under the conservatives. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has promised to send people seeking asylum to Rwanda for resettlement, but those flights have been delayed by court challenges.

The asylum backlog peaked when more than 130,000 people were waiting to have their claim processed.

Source: Home Office

Two-thirds of Britons think immigration is too high, and the disconnect between the Conservatives’ tough talk on immigration and the record levels of migration has opened the party up to attacks from the hard right.

Increases in homelessness, hunger and student debt

The Trussell Trust, a charity, distributed more than 3 million emergency food parcels last year…

Source: Trussell Trust

… and thousands more people are sleeping on the streets than in 2010.

Source: Department for Leveling Up, Housing and Communities

The Conservatives tightened up significant parts of Britain’s welfare system, introducing a two-child limit to child welfare payments, stricter limits for disability benefits and a freeze on working-age benefits for four years.

At the same time, food bank use has skyrocketed. A third of the food parcels distributed by the Trussell Trust last year went to children.

Housing prices have risen dramatically, and an annual survey also found increasing numbers of people sleeping on the streets. Although the number dipped during the pandemic, when the government moved many homeless people into hotels and temporary accommodation, it is now steadily rising toward record levels again.

The problem is stark in many cities now, where the combination of little affordable housing and reduced support services have left many without a safety net.

The cuts have reshaped all aspects of British life, but especially for young people. The Conservatives’ legacy for many of them will be defined by their rising student debt.

The government cut funding for universities and tripled tuition fees to plug the funding gap, meaning the average student now graduates with about £45,000 of student loan debt.

Graduate debt by the time they leave university is three times as high as in 2010…

Source: Student Loans Company

... but more people than ever are attending university.

Source: Higher Education Statistics Agency

The overall crime rate peaked in the mid-90s, driven by increases in violence, vehicle crime and burglary, but it has declined ever since. From 2010 to 2023 it dropped by a further 54 percent.

Despite Mr. Sunak's recent moves to roll back the reduction of carbon emissions, the country his party leaves behind is greener than the one it inherited: Britain is generating 60 percent less electricity from fossil fuels now than it was in 2010.

Methodology

These metrics represent the issues British voters say are most pressing in polls by YouGov. Data for the entire United Kingdom was used when available. Some metrics apply only to England.

To show how these measures have changed over the Conservatives’ time in office, we calculated the percentage change of each metric between 2010 and the latest available data.

The first chart, which shows all metrics and their percentage change, is plotted on a logarithmic scale. Each metric “improved” or “worsened” compared to what the Conservatives would want, based on the party’s pre-election pledges and average voter sentiment about each issue. For example, two-thirds of Britons believe net migration is too high.

Data sources

Food bank use The number of food parcels handed out by The Trussell Trust, the largest food bank operator in Britain. Source: The Trussell Trust. Data covers the United Kingdom.

Graduate debt The average student loan balance at the time of graduation, including interest. Source: Student Loans Company. Data covers England.

Asylum backlog The number of asylum applications awaiting an initial decision. Source: Home Office, Migration Observatory. Data covers the United Kingdom.

Hospital waiting lists The number of people waiting for consultant-led elective care in English hospitals. Source: N.H.S. England. Data covers England.

Homelessness The number of people estimated to be sleeping on the streets on a single night. Source: Department for Leveling Up, Housing and Communities. Data covers England.

Net migration The number of people moving to the U.K. minus the number of people who left. Source: Home Office. Data covers the United Kingdom.

Productivity growth The 10-year trailing average of annual productivity growth. Source: Office for National Statistics. Data covers the United Kingdom.

Local government budgets The median change in spending power, a government estimate of the amount of money that local authorities have available to take decisions. Source: House of Commons Library. Data covers England.

Timely cancer treatment The share of patients starting treatment within 62 days of a referral by their doctor. Source: N.H.S. England. Data covers England.

Knife crime The number of violent and sexual offenses involving a knife or sharp instrument recorded by the police. Source: Office for National Statistics. Data covers England, excluding Greater Manchester.

Government debt The debt of the public sector, excluding public sector banks, as a percentage of G.D.P. Source: Office for National Statistics. Data covers the United Kingdom.

Taxes The percentage of the country’s G.D.P. that is collected in taxes. Source: Office for Budget Responsibility. Data covers the United Kingdom.

Number of troops Number of fully trained full-time personnel in the armed forces. Source: Ministry of Defence via FullFact. Data covers the United Kingdom.

Average weekly earnings The average amount of money that people earn per week, adjusted for inflation. Source: Office for National Statistics. Data covers Great Britain.

Number of police The full-time equivalent number of police officers. Source: House of Commons Library. Data covers the United Kingdom.

University enrollment The number of undergraduate and postgraduate students. Source: Higher Education Statistics Agency. Data covers the United Kingdom.

State pension value The value of the basic state pension, adjusted for inflation. Source: Department for Work and Pensions. Data covers Great Britain.

Unemployment The number of unemployed people in the U.K., aged 16 and over, as measured by the Labor Force Survey. Source: Office for National Statistics. Data covers the United Kingdom.

Crime Includes a range of personal and household crimes such as theft, robbery, and criminal damage. It excludes fraud and computer misuse. Source: Crime Survey of England and Wales. Data covers England and Wales.

Energy from fossil fuels The amount of electricity produced from oil, gas and coal. Source: Our World in Data. Data covers the United Kingdom.

The Conservatives Have Run Britain for 14 Years. How Has That Worked Out? (2024)
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