General Election 2024

Labour has triumphed. Now comes the ‘shit list’

Starmer has led his party to glory and to power. Keeping it there will be very hard work

July 05, 2024
Keir Starmer and his wife Victoria greet Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, as results from the 2024 general election roll in. Contributor: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Keir Starmer and his wife Victoria greet Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, as results from the 2024 general election roll in. Contributor: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

There are many aspects to an election night, caveats to be entered and reservations to be entertained but, before all of that, there is the victory. Sir Keir Starmer has become the first Labour leader to win an election from opposition in more than a quarter of a century. No doubt the contingent circumstances were favourable but none of them gainsay an overall majority of 174. It is a monumental political achievement.

It is true that turnout was low, at 60 per cent, and that Labour’s vote share of 34 per cent was the lowest to produce a workable majority in the history of British politics. Labour’s vote in England did not advance on 2019. There may come a time when these facts matter. It may be that Starmer has built a sandcastle of many wings, but it is still true that 174 is a very large majority. The prime minister has political space and time in which he can operate. 

As Starmer and his wife made their way up Downing Street, the greetings of flag-waving Labour party members instantly recalled Tony Blair’s arrival in 1997. The similarities, though, will end the moment Starmer closes the black door of 10 Downing Street behind him. Tony Blair inherited an economy and tax revenues were starting to become buoyant. Public services were in a state but nothing like as grievously as they are today. In policy terms, Blair stood on the shoulders of the preparatory work that had been painstakingly done by Neil Kinnock. Politically too, Blair had the signal advantage of acquiring the leadership in 1994, two years after Black Wednesday had more or less made a Tory defeat inevitable. 

Starmer, by contrast, has brought Labour to this point in a term and, while that amplifies the political triumph, it also means that he has travelled more lightly on policy than he would like. Time was short even without the interruption of a pandemic, and so Labour enters office inevitably less well prepared than it was in 1997. This is not really a failing on Starmer’s part as mach as an observation of the facts. It is intriguing, though, to note how little it has mattered. Time after time commentators insisted that a Labour party that was not prepared to be “bold” or “radical” ran the risk that it would forfeit victory. It is not possible, it was repeatedly said, to rely on the decline of the Conservative party. Victory demands more than that. 

Well, clearly not. The Conservatives really were bad enough to lose the election on their own. Boldness is evidently not a prerequisite of victory. It may, however, be a prerequisite of government, especially at the moment. The best response to the accusation that Labour has a wide but shallow majority is to govern well. It is entirely reasonable to claim that a majority of this size gives the Labour party both a mandate for action and a worrying long list of problems that need to be addressed. 

Starmer will soon discover that there are chronic reasons why government is hard. The easy policy questions were all answered long ago. Governments tend to leave the tougher work to their successors, and some of the problems in most urgent need of attention—infrastructure, investment, savings, climate change, the housing market—take more time to turn than is allowed in the political cycle. Perhaps one virtue of the large majority is that it will permit Keir Starmer’s government to take a slightly longer perspective. 

The government will ask for, and need, our patience. Sue Gray, Starmer’s putative chief of staff, has drawn up what she has indelicately called “a shit list” of the pressing problems that a Labour government will inherit. It is an alarming list of six items although, sadly, it is probably not comprehensive. The first problem is the possible collapse of Thames Water, which is £15.6bn in debt and owned by another firm, Kemble, which is itself reportedly more or less insolvent. Ofwat has already rejected Kemble’s plan to raise the bills of customers by 40 per cent above inflation over the next five years. The likely solution, at least as a stopgap, is nationalisation, which is absolutely not where Rachel Reeves was intending to commit any money. 

There are plenty of other calls on that money. The second item on Gray’s “shit list” is the round of public sector pay negotiations. Public services have faced, over the last year, according to the Institute for Government, the highest level of disruption from strikes in a quarter of a century. Nurses, ambulance drivers, teachers, junior doctors and consultants have all withdrawn their labour. Daniel Kebede, general secretary of the National Education Union, has already threatened strike action against Labour. Labour will not come into office bearing any large cheques and the negotiations will be tough. 

Then there are the problems which Labour will inherit from the austerity of the Osborne years. Even on a generous reading, there are three public services in a terrible state. Prisons in England and Wales are worryingly close to overcapacity. It is probable that, in the early days of a Labour government, some universities will go under. A report by the Office for Students notes that 40 per cent of English universities are expected to go into the red this year. Higher education will have to compete with the NHS for cash because, according to the British Medical Journal, unless there is an annual £8.5bn cash injection, there is very little hope that Wes Streeting, the new health secretary, will be able to redeem his promise to cut the number of people waiting for hospital treatment. 

The final problem on Gray’s list might be the most intractable of them all. In 2023, the councils in Nottingham, Birmingham and Woking all ran out of money. Half of all local councils have announced that they will be forced to declare effective bankruptcy within five years. This has been a long time coming. Between 2009 and 2019 central government grant funding for councils dropped by 40 per cent in real terms. The Local Government Association has estimated that local authorities in England face a funding gap of £4bn over the next two years.

This is a list to frighten any incoming government, but it is far from exhaustive. Sue Gray did not include, but might have done, the chronic and never-addressed crisis in social care. According to Age UK, 2.6m people in England aged over 50 are unable to get care. There is a significant shortage of teachers. Vacancies posted by schools in February last year were 93 per cent higher than at the same point in 2019. Perhaps the biggest problem of the lot is the lack of housing. According to the Centre for Cities, there is a backlog of 4.3m homes that need to be built in the UK. 

In his speech in Downing Street, his first as prime minister, Keir Starmer immediately sounded more comfortable than he ever did as leader of the opposition. Office may suit him. He really is not one of those politicians who enjoys the game. He wanted to win, which is a rarer objective in politics than you might imagine, and he is keen to act rather than speak. His government will not be able to act on all fronts at once. Planning reform will come first but social care should follow. Rachel Reeves needs to use her first budget to set a course on taxation—away from taxing income and toward taxing wealth—rather than a course for five months.

Labour has won a great political triumph, against the advice of most, by remaining resolutely the opposite of bold. The paradox is that caution has provided a mandate for radicalism. It is an exhausting thought, the morning after a long night, to imagine the next general election—but the campaign starts now, and Labour will run on its emerging record. Time to get something done.