If the current contours of UK politics continue, next year will see the election of a Labour Government. Keir Starmer will become Labour’s seventh Prime Minister, and a long overdue veil will be drawn on fourteen failed years of Tory rule.
Labour are over 20% ahead in the polls at the moment and have been consistently since Rishi Sunak became PM in October last year. They face a tired, divided government which has a calamitous record in office, having fallen abysmally short in nearly every area. Yet despite this, and Labour’s current lead on every single policy issue, the party faces numerous challenges firstly to win and then to be a success in office.
First is the electoral mountain that Labour face to even win by the thinnest margins. They need to win – after the boundary changes – 128 seats to gain a majority of one according to Professor John Curtice. This is something they have only done post-war in 1945 and 1997; Labour needs a swing of over 13% from the Conservatives, something never previously achieved. And it has to do all this without its previous banker of Scottish seats.
Second is the Tory propensity and hunger to cling to office which still exists in sections of the party. Previous Tory Governments post-1945, according to Robert Ford, have on average gained 10% by election day from their lowest ebb: twice the average Labour rebound. Three times post-1945 Tory Governments have been 20% or more behind Labour and still won – Macmillan in 1959, Thatcher in 1983 and John Major in 1992. Sunak does not have the political acumen of the first two, but the Tory capacity to cling to office should never be underestimated.
Third are the multiple crises that the UK faces – economic, social, democratic – along with profound questions about the efficacy of government, public bodies and public institutions. This means that an incoming Labour Government will face tough choices from day one, ones which will disappoint some Labour supporters and even losers. They will face a tight room for manoeuvre in terms of public spending and services, along with little wriggle room for redistribution. All while respect and trust in the institutions of government and politics to advance the common good have fallen, and are nowhere at the level they were when Labour previously entered office.
Fourthly, the election of a Labour Government in such circumstances could in an ideal world be a catalyst for radicalism but looking at the examples of history is more likely to be a factor in reinforcing Labour caution and conservatism.
What happened to previous Labour Governments elected after periods of crisis?
Every post-war Labour Government has been elected after a period of crisis – 1945, 1964, 1974 and 1997. 1945 is an exceptional case that many in Labour cite as a useful blueprint, forgetting that it followed five years of the party in wartime coalition in effect running the domestic ‘people’s war’ and building up an unparalleled expertise in how Whitehall worked.
1964 and 1997 both came after long periods of Tory rule which saw Labour posing as the party of democratic renewal. The only near comparison for 2024 is February 1974 when the UK economy and society were engulfed in crisis, division and disputation, combined with the questioning of the legitimacy of government and public institutions.
Then Labour came to office as a minority government under Harold Wilson which became a narrow majority of three seats when he went to the polls again in October 1974. Labour governed in a climate of tempestuous domestic and international conditions. Any radicalism the government initially had was thrown overboard as it became defined by managing the stormy economic waters. In so doing its overriding purpose became to not alienate the City and international markets, while trying to manage the trade union movement through the ‘social contract’.
As Labour tried to govern over 1974-79 an increasingly emboldened right-wing critique of what was wrong with Britain gained steam which eventually crystallised into Thatcherism. It put forward a prognosis of ‘the British disease’ and a cure to heal it – tearing up the pillars of the managed society which characterised post-war Britain. Pre-1979, and prior to the election of Thatcher as PM, this critique had already established its intellectual and political dominance. One example of many was Labour PM Jim Callaghan embracing the merits of monetarism and that the days of UK full employment were over.
Fifth, history rarely repeats itself in a tidy way, but the 1974-79 example is a warning for a Labour Government elected in 2024 that may well have little to no majority in the House of Commons. Numerous challenges – economic, fiscal, social, domestic and international – will constrain it and are even more severe than 1974, without mentioning the damage done by Brexit. A new Labour Government will also face opposition from a virulent, increasingly xenophobic, racist and illiberal politics of the right, along with even more legislation motivated by, in the words of refugee rights’ campaigner Bridget Chapman, ‘performative cruelty’ – all of which has become increasingly influential in the Tory Party, right-wing think-tanks and media.
It is not unimaginable that if a Labour Government is broken by the challenges and storms it faces that an even more ‘nasty party’ Conservatism and right-wing ideological politics returns to power with a vengeance to complete what they see as ‘unfinished business’ of Thatcherism in tearing down the last remaining vestiges of the post-war social contract.
Sixth, Labour’s emerging programme as it stands is limited, timid and falls well short of what is needed in the circumstances, designed as it is partly to placate right-wing vested interests. Gone is the confidence of previous Labour eras – 1945, 1964, even 1997 to an extent – that Labour can be the party of the future and remake Britain in a progressive direction.
Labour’s economic programme may draw from economist Mariana Mazzucato and the notion of an ‘entrepreneurial state’ actively intervening in markets, supporting collaboration and partnership to aid a more dynamic and more socially and environmentally conscious capitalism, but it lacks any real teeth in terms of institution building, concrete ideas to change business and a systemic critique of British capitalism.
Seventh, ‘Labour modernisers’, in the literal sense of the term, not the narrow New Labour one, had an explicit idea of a different kind of British state in 1964 and 1974. This would be a central body which was more democratic (but in a limited way), empowering, interventionist and at its heart a developmental state supporting long-term economic growth, investment and innovation.
This was the thinking behind Labour’s National Plan in 1964, the Department of Economic Affairs to challenge Treasury orthodoxy, and the Industrial Reorganisation Corporation; and in 1974 Tony Benn’s vision of a National Enterprise Board and industrial strategy which was emasculated by Wilson’s centrism. Labour’s aspirations to change the nature of the state, business and capitalism went with the grain of the times with Harold Macmillan after 1959 and Ted Heath after 1970 trying and failing with Tory policies along somewhat similar, if less interventionist, lines. All this was brought to an end by the ascendancy of Thatcherism.
Whatever happened to Labour’s idea for a different state and Britain?
Labour has no such intent to aspire to a different kind of state. Adding to this it seems to accept that its highest goal is to put back together a competent neoliberal state and settlement at the core of British government, albeit one with a small amount of ‘mood music’ social democracy.
On top of all of this the UK that the Labour Party seek to govern is not only bitterly divided economically and socially, but deeply divided between the nations and regions that make up the UK. There is now no such thing as a homogeneous British politics, and the union Labour seek to keep together is creaking, cracking and increasingly fragmenting. One force in this is the SNP and Scottish independence (which whatever the current travails of the former is not going away); another is the Northern Ireland dimension; add to that how Labour rebalances England and addresses its democratic deficit of governance and the party would face a ‘UK politics’ which would limit the scope of a reforming Westminster Labour administration.
Labour used to stand in its 1945-75 heyday for the idea of the union of the UK as a means to an end – that end being a more social just, fair and open society. But in the 2014 indyref Scottish Labour backed itself into the corner of defending the union as an end in itself – in effect parroting the Tory unconditional pro-union line and having to live with the consequences in 2015 of their near total wideout north of the border.
Despite everything – the history of episodic Labour Governments; dominance of the Tories across the arc of the 20th century onward; the reality that the current dispensation of the British political system, state and electoral system works in the Tory self-interest – Labour can still not wean itself off believing in the current system of government and politics.
Labour still cling to the wreckage of the British state, to First Past the Post, parliamentary sovereignty and Westminster absolutism as much as the Tories do (who it works for). Such a political opinion unites the Labour leadership and the most fervent Tory Brexiteers, the former believing that a majority Labour Government can hold monopoly political power on a minority of the vote. The Gordon Brown Constitutional Commission – instead of being a vehicle for democratisation, decentralism and pluralism – at its centre held onto the traditional Labour totems of believing in the outdated Westminster regime.
Labour faces a narrow, perilous path and window of opportunity to win office, and once there to be a success, rebuilding and transforming the UK. They also face a Tory Party which despite all its fissures and infighting never fully gives up and voluntarily relinquishes power (in the way Labour has done several times in office – 1951 and 1979 being obvious examples).
As the academic Tim Bale observes in his forthcoming study The Conservative Party after Brexit the Tories have in the post-war era faced three previous points – the 1940s, 1960s and 2000s – when it looked like they were heading for electoral oblivion and exclusion from office for a significant period, only to regroup and come back. The Tory Party can never be underestimated, and a party defeated in 2024 could be back sooner than many think.
Labour has to propose a more ambitious economic, social and democratic offer to succeed that embodies a compelling, convincing story about a different kind of Britain from the present. Sadly, as we speak, there is little sign that Labour have the intent or will to dare to fundamentally refashion Britain, and instead look content to be the party of restoration and conservatism.
This is a politics which ill serves the party, its appeal and its values, and consigns it to operating in the right-wing paradigm of recent decades just as it has become discredited. Irony of irony will be if Labour in office cling to the zombie capitalism and politics which have done such damage to the UK only to see the opportunist Tories in opposition embrace a populism and portray Labour as the party of ‘the establishment’.
Gerry Hassan is a writer, commentator, academic and Professor of Social Change at Glasgow Caledonian University. His books include ‘The Strange Death of Labour Scotland’, ‘The People’s Flag and the Union Jack’ and the recently published ‘Scotland Rising: The Case for Independence’. His writing and research can be found at www.gerryhassan.com.