The Progressive Post

Labour is back

Professor of Public Policy at Queen Mary, University of London and a member of the FEPS Scientific Council

British Labour’s election victory last Thursday was little short of breath-taking. Labour won its second-highest parliamentary majority ever on a huge swing, taking 412 seats in the House of Commons. 

To appreciate the scale of the party’s triumph, it is important to recognise just how terrible Labour’s predicament was only five years ago. In the 2019 general election, the party suffered its worst electoral defeat since 1935. Labour was an exhausted and divided political force, beaten in its own traditional heartlands, divided over the issue of Brexit, and worst of all, morally tainted by accusations of ideological extremism and anti-semitism. It was a party that moderate, centrist voters who determine the outcome of British general elections, could not bring themselves to support. As such, Labour had an electoral and political mountain to climb. 

Just five years later under Keir Starmer’s leadership, the party has achieved a remarkable victory. The Conservatives won just 121 seats and suffered a calamitous decline in their share of the popular vote, battered by accusations of incompetence and division. Labour ran in the 2024 election on a mainstream social democratic programme that would be familiar to centre-left parties across Europe, emphasising responsible economic management, the extension of workers’ rights alongside measures to improve public services, address the climate emergency and restore trust in democratic institutions. Yet the party’s manifesto was understandably cautious and carefully costed. It had to disavow the Corbyn legacy, and under a first-past-the-post system, Labour needed to appeal to a broad coalition of voters. 

As ever in politics, however, things are never quite as good or as bad as they superficially seem. Looking beneath the bonnet of UK politics indicates that there are challenges ahead for Starmer’s party as it navigates the transition from opposition to power. For one, turnout at the 2024 election fell precipitously to only 60 per cent, almost the lowest level since the end of the Second World War. Such a decline in electoral participation indicates that the UK electorate is more disillusioned and disengaged from politics than ever. Young people in economically disadvantaged areas of the UK were significantly less likely to vote. A second factor was the rise of the right-wing populist party, Reform UK, at the behest of Nigel Farage. At this election, Reform damaged the Conservatives, but when the next election comes in four- or five-year time, there is little doubt that Farage will be focused on exploiting political discontent with the incumbent Labour government. Like other insurgent populist right-wing movements across Europe, Reform UK will insist that the Starmer government has failed to address voters’ concerns about migration and national identity. A third issue is the fragmentation of the centre-left vote due to rising support for the Greens and Left independents. Despite winning a huge majority, there were unexpected defeats last Thursday. The issue of Gaza has proved particularly difficult to navigate. Some younger voters believe that Labour has not demonstrated sufficient urgency and radicalism on climate change. 

A final challenge is the nature of Labour’s governing inheritance. The UK has been afflicted by major shocks over the last decade, notably Brexit and Covid. These crises have interacted with long-standing pathologies to cripple British economic performance. The economy was already undermined by the long-term legacy of stubbornly low productivity, weak innovation, and regional inequality combined with systemic public and private sector under-investment. The British economy is able to achieve neither the dynamism of the US nor the equity characteristic of the Northern European countries.  

As a result, the UK now requires a break-out strategy to bring a long period of economic and social stagnation to an end. Britain is at risk of becoming permanently stuck in a ‘doom loop’ of low economic growth, rising inequality and declining public services, a dynamic that will further erode political trust and imperil democracy. The main task of an incoming government is to arrest the decline by enacting a radical agenda of economic and social reform. Even so, ministers will confront major obstacles in implementing their programme. Some barriers are contingent elements of UK politics, notably the harsh economic and fiscal climate. Others are structural features of the dysfunctional UK state and the anachronistic institutional framework of the British political system. 

In power, Labour needs an agenda that matches the scale of the country’s problems, alongside a ten-year strategy to transform the nation. As always, there are obstacles ahead for UK Labour. Yet for all the difficulties, it is important to remember that last Thursday, Starmer’s Labour party achieved a historic landslide victory, winning a majority bigger than Attlee’s in 1945 and almost matching Blair’s in 1997. There is much to celebrate – but also much to do.

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