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The first post-Brexit election in Britain will be on July 4

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The U.K. holds its election on July 4. Is that a little unfair? I mean, doesn't the United States have its own claim on that day? In any case, July 4 is the date for the U.K. after 14 years of Conservative Party rule, which included Brexit and Boris Johnson and the shortest tenure of any prime minister, which pundits famously compared to the shelf life of a head of lettuce.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Liz Truss - there we have it. It looks like the lettuce outlasted the prime minister.

INSKEEP: Now polls forecast a swing to the U.K's center-left Labour Party. The next prime minister will inherit a country that many Britons say feels broken to them. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from London.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: So here we are in the cereal aisle. What's your kids' favorite?

FAITH ANGWET: They love their Frosties, but they don't always get that because it's sugar.

FRAYER: Faith Angwet stands in the supermarket cereal aisle doing math.

ANGWET: Let's say the Kellogg's. Before, it used to be under 4 pounds.

FRAYER: Four seventy-five.

ANGWET: Now it's 4.75. You have to shop smart, and...

FRAYER: Do you look for those...

ANGWET: Those ones.

FRAYER: ...Bright-orange special offer?

ANGWET: Yeah.

FRAYER: Yeah.

ANGWET: But...

FRAYER: And you didn't have to do that before?

ANGWET: No, I didn't have to.

FRAYER: She's a single parent on a low income, navigating the U.K's worst cost-of-living crisis since World War II.

ANGWET: Literally, I would probably get, like, an A in economics now (laughter) than before, 'cause I didn't understand inflation, but now understand it more.

FRAYER: One economist says Britain is experiencing its biggest wage squeeze since the Napoleonic Wars. A greater share of British children now live in poverty, according to the United Nations, than in almost any other developed country. Excluding London, Britain is poorer than Mississippi.

NESRINE MALIK: It's a sort of staggered decline.

FRAYER: Guardian columnist Nesrine Malik says the U.K. was hit harder than most by the 2008 financial crisis. Like Greece and elsewhere, the government here imposed austerity, but under the Conservatives, it wasn't a short-term thing. It's been more of a governing philosophy.

MALIK: Which is that you privatize; you centralize; you deregulate; and then things will trickle down to the poorest. That has not worked.

FRAYER: Or rather, it's worked for the rich, she says, but the gap between the halves and have-nots has widened. Resentment over that led some people to vote for Brexit. Then COVID-19 hit. Then Russia invaded Ukraine, and energy prices went through the roof. With public debt at a record high, the U.K. government has had to make some tough decisions.

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PRIME MINISTER RISHI SUNAK: I am canceling the rest of the HS-2 project.

FRAYER: Last year, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak scrapped an over-budget and way-behind-schedule project that would have belatedly connected some parts of England with the type of high-speed rail service that's long been the norm in continental Europe. This is the country that invented the locomotive and the post-war welfare state.

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CLEMENT ATTLEE: Tomorrow, there will come into operation the most comprehensive system of social security ever introduced into any country.

FRAYER: That's British Prime Minister Clement Attlee in 1948, inaugurating the National Health Service, or NHS, which guarantees free healthcare for all. It was a model for public health systems elsewhere.

EMMA RUNSWICK: This is a public service that in just 2011, the Commonwealth Fund said was the best in the world.

FRAYER: For Dr. Emma Runswick, of Manchester, working for the NHS reflects what she says is her deep personal and political commitment to socialized medicine, but her pay hasn't kept pace with inflation. Public investment in the health service overall hasn't kept pace with a growing and aging U.K. population, and Dr. Runswick says care has deteriorated.

RUNSWICK: Now we regularly put people along the corridors. Hospitals have put sticky hooks on the walls so that we can hang drips.

FRAYER: This is literally beds in the hallway.

RUNSWICK: Absolutely, missing their dignity. You can't undress somebody and examine somebody in a corridor, so we have become used to providing substandard care.

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RUNSWICK: Seventy thousand junior doctors are on strike this week.

(CHEERING)

FRAYER: That's Dr. Runswick on the megaphone at one of dozens of recent strikes that have forced the cancellation of millions of doctors' appointments and surgeries and left the health service virtually unstaffed.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The time is nine minutes past 7. Today, tomorrow, Thursday and Friday are all days when you'll need to think very carefully if you or someone close to you needs a doctor anywhere in England.

FRAYER: Ruling Conservatives have allowed and encouraged the NHS to outsource some duties to private hospitals, but critics see this as creeping privatization, like what's happened with other public utilities. In the case of the U.K. water companies, privatization has enriched shareholders and left rivers and lakes infamously polluted with runoff and sewage.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Two, three, four - we don't want this poo no more.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Swimmers, canoeists, and paddleboarders, voicing their anger at the regular sewage spills into this part of the River Trent.

FRAYER: All of this has fueled a sense that Britain's past glory is crumbling - in some cases, quite literally.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Just days before the start of term, a hundred schools in England have been told to shut down buildings with crumble-risk concrete.

FRAYER: Back-to-school season this year was marred by ceilings falling in at schools that had been renovated with cheaper, weaker materials.

DAVID WILLETTS: There clearly have been a series of blows.

FRAYER: David Willetts worked under then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher - better known as the Iron Lady - who privatized railways, among other things, in the 1980s. He now heads a think tank, and has a seat in the House of Lords.

WILLETTS: I guess my title is officially Lord Willetts. I don't know how that plays in America. I'll leave you to judge.

FRAYER: He says the next prime minister - and polls suggest it's likely to be Keir Starmer, of the center-left Labour Party - will need to manage expectations because things are not going to get better overnight, he says...

WILLETTS: When your economy is growing as modestly as the British economy is, and productivity is growing modestly, and you need to save more, it's very hard to see big increases in living standards in the next few years.

FRAYER: On one hand, Starmer is forecast to win with a big majority, a big mandate. On the other hand, he's inheriting empty coffers. Here's what he recently told local TV.

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KEIR STARMER: We have to be very clear we're not going back to austerity. I know what austerity feels like, but in the end, there's no magic wand that we can wave the day after the election and fix all the country's problems - and nobody would believe us if we said there is.

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FRAYER: Do you guys want to sit here, and I'll sit across from you?

So for Faith Angwet, shopping for bargain breakfast cereal for her kids and riding the bus in South London...

ANGWET: It is becoming much harder for me to even budget transport. I always run out of...

FRAYER: Even though the country is on the brink of big political change, she fully expects to be doing the math, trying to make ends meet for some time to come.

ANGWET: You got to do what you got to do, yeah.

FRAYER: Lauren Frayer, NPR News, in Peckham, South London.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLYRHYTHMICS' "THE CUTDOWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lauren Frayer
Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.