New Times,
New Thinking.

The return of order

After a decade of Tory inertia, Keir Starmer’s Labour Party has the opportunity to remake Britain.

By New Statesman

For at least a decade, the United Kingdom has been defined by its chronic instability. The 2014 Scottish independence referendum challenged the integrity of the British state itself, leading to the collapse of Labour north of the border and prolonged conflict between Westminster and Holyrood. The 2016 Brexit vote permanently destabilised the Conservative Party and resulted in four prime ministers in eight years. Successive leaders struggled to appease powerful but unrepresentative back-bench factions.

The election of Keir Starmer’s Labour Party marks the end of this era. With a majority of 172 seats, the new government will be more stable than any since Tony Blair’s administration in 1997. By winning a majority of seats in Scotland as well as England and Wales – the first time any party has done so since 2001 – Labour has settled the independence question for now. The SNP, which won just nine of the country’s 57 seats, has lost its claim to a mandate for secession. A revived Scottish Labour could yet regain control of the devolved parliament in 2026.

Mr Starmer’s victory also signals the end of the Brexit wars. Labour will seek closer relations with the EU but it will not reopen the European question. Membership of the single market and the customs union – which would entail a negotiation over free movement – has been ruled out.

By resolving these constitutional matters, Labour aims to shift focus towards the UK’s anaemic economy. As Rachel Reeves noted in her first speech as Chancellor, on 8 July, Britain’s GDP would be £140bn larger had it grown at the average rate of the OECD since 2010. The restoration of housebuilding targets for local councils and the end of the de facto ban on new onshore wind farms were welcome early announcements.

After years in which politics has trumped good policy, Labour is prioritising growth. A more stable environment will also incentivise business investment (which has been the lowest in the G7 for the past three years).

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Recent Conservative cabinets prioritised ideology over ability: Mr Starmer’s appointments have rewarded expertise. Patrick Vallance, who helped lead the vaccine rollout as chief scientific adviser during the Covid pandemic, is the new science minister. James Timpson, the inspiring entrepreneur and philanthropist, who has championed rehabilitation, is the new prisons minister. Those who have been awarded key briefs are expected to retain them for the duration of this parliament. The farcical rate of ministerial churn – the UK has had five chancellors in five years and 16 housing ministers in 13 years – will be slowed.

Labour’s triumph is precarious, however. Though its landslide mirrors that of 1997, it has been won in far more volatile circumstances. The party’s share of the vote was just 33.7 per cent (compared to Mr Blair’s 43.2 per cent). Labour was defeated by five independent candidates who harnessed public anger over the war in Gaza. The Greens, who won four MPs and 6.7 per cent of the vote, have emerged as a threat to its left; Reform, which won five MPs and 14.3 per cent of the vote, has emerged as a threat to its right. Nigel Farage’s party finished second to Labour in 89 seats across the north, Midlands and Wales; the spectre of Reform will haunt this administration.

These political challenges will intensify the policy dilemmas that Labour faces. Money will need to be found swiftly if universities and councils are to be spared bankruptcy and if the junior doctors’ strike is to be settled. By commissioning a review of the public finances by Treasury officials, Ms Reeves is wisely preparing the ground for potential tax rises.

In common with many of its predecessors, the new Labour government faces huge challenges: an insurgent populist right; a crumbling public realm; a world being remade by geopolitical risk and threats of war. But it also enjoys advantages: a large and stable majority; a divided and humiliated opposition; an ambitious policy programme.

After a decade of Conservative inertia, Keir Starmer and his ministers have a window of opportunity to demonstrate the power of active government. Their fate – and that of the country – depends on making use of it.

[See also: Keir Starmer’s hard road ahead]

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This article appears in the 10 Jul 2024 issue of the New Statesman, All Change