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24 January 2024

Labour in power

As it prepares for office, the party should study why it has so often struggled to retain it.

By New Statesman

A century ago this January, the first Labour government took office. “The load will be heavy and I am so much alone,” wrote Ramsay MacDonald, the illegitimate son of a ploughman from Lossiemouth, north-east Scotland, the night before becoming prime minister. In the event, his minority administration lasted only nine months, overwhelmed in part by fears of Soviet communist subversion. But a crucial precedent had been set. “The mere formation of a Labour government,” Clement Attlee later observed, “registered a vital change in the political situation. Henceforth Labour was the alternative government.”

Yet the century that followed was one, on the whole, of Conservative hegemony. Labour held office for just 33 years and had only six prime ministers: since 1945 only Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair have won general elections. The Conservatives, by comparison, have held office for 67 out of the last 100 years and produced 14 prime ministers in that time.

After dreams of socialist triumph faded, Labour became haunted by what Jon Cruddas MP, the author of A Century of Labour, calls “the death question”. Was it destined for political extinction, as some thought in the 1980s? An entire literature has been devoted to this subject: such as Eric Hobsbawm’s essay “The forward march of Labour halted?”, Mark Abrams and Richard Rose’s Must Labour Lose?, and Giles Radice’s Southern Discomfort.

In the aftermath of the 2019 general election, when Labour endured its worst defeat since 1935, the party was again gripped by the death question. Having been reduced to 202 MPs, it appeared destined for a decade in opposition or worse.

[See also: Why Labour is still preparing for a May general election]

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Yet under Keir Starmer, Labour has enjoyed a remarkable recovery. At 22 points, the party’s average poll lead now matches the level achieved before Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide victory. A more volatile electorate, successive acts of Conservative self-harm and the struggles of the SNP have aided Labour but Mr Starmer also deserves credit. He is pragmatic as well as ruthless and, as Machiavelli put it, has harmonised his “behaviour with the times”. Labour is now a government in waiting.

Yet Labour’s history is full of warnings. Its prime ministers have struggled to reconcile the demands of an activist movement with the demands of governing. In 1931, at the height of the Great Depression, Labour split over austerity and MacDonald formed a National Government mostly made up of Conservatives. Two decades later, Aneurin Bevan and Wilson resigned from Attlee’s government in protest at the introduction of medicine prescription charges to fund Britain’s participation in the Korean War. In 1976, having accepted a £2.3bn bailout from the International Monetary Fund, James Callaghan embraced a form of proto-monetarism and could not contain trade union rebellions. On all three occasions, Labour would be exiled from office for more than a decade.

In power, Mr Starmer is likely to face comparable dilemmas. Labour will suffer one of the worst inheritances of any British government: a stagnant economy, collapsing public services and the highest national debt as a share of GDP since the early 1960s. At every turn it will face daunting spending pressures: the NHS, education, defence and the green energy transition.

Higher economic growth – the highest of any G7 country – is the panacea that Labour reaches for. Mr Starmer is right to seek a mandate for measures such as planning reform that successive governments have shunned. A Labour Party that views spending as the answer to every problem will never prosper politically or economically.

After years of Conservative misrule and infighting, the UK may enjoy a stability dividend as investment becomes less politically fraught. Britain, as the Resolution Foundation’s recent Ending Stagnation report noted, has significant “catch-up potential”.

Should the UK economy fail to recover, Labour will need an alternative strategy. The modest tax rises it has promised so far will not fund the renewal of the public realm. How will the party negotiate the culture wars? What is its policy on immigration? What if Donald Trump becomes US president? For Labour, the challenges of governing are far preferable to the futility of opposition. But as it prepares to take power this year, the party should study why it has proved so poor at retaining it.

[See also: Britain deserves better in 2024]

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This article appears in the 24 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Media Wars