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Now Comes the Hard Part

The UK’s new Labour government enjoys a huge mandate, but it must contend with imposing challenges at home and abroad.

· 14 min read
Sir Keir Starmer arrives at Downing Street. He's smiling, in a red tie, blue suit.
Downing Street, Westminster, London 5th July 2024, Sir Keir Starmer elected as the new prime minister arrives at Downing Street. Shutterstock.


On the night of 4 July, the UK Labour Party won an unprecedented electoral landslide. Compared to 2019, it gained 211 new seats while the Conservatives lost 251, an astonishing swing that handed Labour a parliamentary majority of 174. It was, the BBC reported, “the worst Conservative result in terms of seats in history.”

A sour note from the far-Left was inevitable. Labour, these critics said, had won power but betrayed socialism. That message has been intoned for months by many within the Labour group Momentum, formed in 2015 to support Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the party. On 17 June, it was expressed most bitterly and self-indulgently by Irvine Welsh, the author of Trainspotting. With a novelist’s weakness for overwrought prose, he wrote:

“We won’t change anything but we’ll be less corrupt, look after your money better and not rip you off so much—at least in our first term.” 

This, essentially, is Labour’s message going into the election, The choice of leaders and parties is a rearranging-deckchairs-on-the-Titanic exercise, rather than a harbinger of the deep systemic change required to restore and extend a crumbling democracy. If one thing can be guaranteed in the coming general election, it’s that absolutely nobody will be inspired. 

In the spirit of such cries, Welsh provided no details of what this “deep systemic change” might look like, other than taking a lot more money from billionaires. Millionaires, he thinks, should be encouraged (he must be one now) as a degree of wealth to which all can aspire, so long as their taxes are also reasonably high. This sort of rhetoric is self-serving and of no help to the kind of deep change he wants to see. Even so, Welsh has good form in these matters. He has written about the “betrayal” of white working-class men, long regarded as the brutish enemies of bourgeois liberals who decide who is to be granted victim status. “But perversely,” he has previously written, “white proletarian men are … outsiders in this rainbow-coloured festival of the oppressed.” That is a fair point, too little made.

Yet he may be wrong about the bigger picture, carried along as he is by the rhythms of his own disenchantment. Prime minister Keir Starmer and his deputy Angela Rayner are both from the lower orders, and they have pledged to make life better for “working people.” That descriptor, of course, covers the £500,000-a-year bond trader and the £28,000-a-year refuse collector, but Starmer and Rayner are clearly talking about the latter not the former.

Welsh and the Momentum Corbynites are also right that the current iteration of the Labour Party is not socialist. Starmer has made that even more clear than Tony Blair did during his tenure as prime minister (1997–2007). Improvements in working people’s conditions will come from social democracy—a liberal working-class-oriented party without the socialism that once defined it. Pragmatism will be the order of the day, which means there are no obvious boundaries to the policies and positions the leadership might adopt. This is the Labour Party of today.

“From now on,” Starmer announced after he returned from Buckingham Palace, “you have a government unburdened by doctrine, guided only by the determination to serve your interest, to defy quietly those who have written our country off.” That, as he must know, is impossible—governments always have some doctrine in their veins. What he really meant is that there is nothing here for socialists. This is not new—leftists have been complaining about the betrayal of socialism as far back as the first Labour prime minister Ramsay MacDonald, for his leadership of a national government from 1931–35.

What is new is the growing belief that the Conservative Party has betrayed conservatism—a view within the party itself and now a trope in various public statements, appearances, and media columns. Jacob Rees-Mogg (who lost his seat), Suella Braverman (who kept hers), and others feel that this catastrophic defeat could have been avoided had their party focused on popular issues, particularly mass immigration. Immigration has soared in the years since the Brexit referendum in 2016, the outcome of which was supposed to reduce the flow of migrants. Former prime minister Rishi Sunak’s plan to export illegal immigrants to a camp in Rwanda was blocked by vetoes in British courts and the European Court of Human Rights, and only a handful of deportees were actually sent to the African state. In March, the National Audit Office estimated that the UK would have to pay £600m to deport 300 migrants, and £4bn to deport 20,000, a huge increase on the cost of keeping them in the UK.

Sunak presided over a deeply unhappy period in office. Although he had voted for Brexit, he was unable to take advantage of the freedoms it was meant to provide. David Cameron, who had served as prime minister from 2010–16 was brought back as foreign minister, and his public-relations skills ensured he was in the media more often than his nominal chief. Cameron had launched the Brexit referendum in 2016, confident that the country would vote to remain in the European Union, and resigned immediately after the vote, leaving the party in a state of febrile disarray. His three successors came and went in just six years—Theresa May (2016–19), Boris Johnson (2019–22), and Liz Truss (September–October 2022). A party that had been seen—and saw itself—as a steady, responsible, and moderate force on the Right became a joke and a focus of (often exaggerated) hatred.

The Conservative Party now descends into the miserable netherworld of opposition, against a House of Commons majority between three and four times its size, as its remaining MPs begin to joust for the leadership. The most important division in that contest will be between those who wish to remain in a liberal, centrist party and those who believe it must take a sharp turn to the right. It is likely that this argument will consume the party for the months—and possibly years—ahead. The radicals—who generally survived a little better than the centrists in the electoral cull—presently have the advantage. Their party’s most recent leaders (with the partial exception of Liz Truss) were all centrists, and can therefore be held responsible for the party’s dismal election result. But the higher card they can play is the surge of Reform and the emergence of its leader Nigel Farage as the arbiter of what constitutes a true party of the Right in today’s UK.

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