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Starmer delivers a speech to an audience.

Keir Starmer: three warnings from history for Labour’s seventh British prime minister

When teaching British political history, I usually stress two points. First, the British Conservative Party have been among the most successful office-seeking parties in electoral history. Second, British Labour struggles mightily to obtain power. Both throw into relief the earth-shattering nature of this landslide win for Keir Starmer’s Labour party.

Labour has wielded power for only 33 of its 124 years on this earth. The party has usually found the experience hair-raising. It is certain to do so again: its huge majority is not matched by a massive vote share, and depended on a Conservative collapse and the brutal logic of first past the post. The parliamentary Labour party will represent seats with wildly different demographics – and face strong pressure from right and left.

The historian Ben Jackson recently identified persistent, powerful “constraints” that have made governing difficult for every Labour government in history – including the economic circumstances and the geopolitical contexts in which each came to power.

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As Starmer becomes Labour’s seventh prime minister, he should heed his predecessors’ challenges – and their attempts to overcome them. Three stand out.

1. Strike a balance between grand vision and immediate need

The first danger to address is the potential clash between the government’s strategic ambitions and the short-term interests of voters. As a democratic socialist party, Labour often promises transformative reform. “The nation needs a tremendous overhaul” through “drastic policies”, declared its 1945 manifesto. “An irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people,” promised the February 1974 equivalent.

But voters will return to the polls in five short years at most. So a Labour government must be careful not to sacrifice their immediate needs by focusing only on long-term vision.

The government led by Clement Attlee after his landslide win against Winston Churchill in 1945 was famous for nationalising key public services and creating the NHS. Yet, to achieve these transformations, it instituted an austere welfare system in the immediate term that contributed to postwar poverty. It also rationed bread – a step not even taken during total war. Historian Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska attributes Labour’s eviction in 1951 – despite winning the popular vote – to the toxic reception of its austerity among voters (especially women) in swing seats.

Clement Attlee
Clement Attlee had a big vision, but it came at a short-term cost. Alamy/Leslie Priest

One might respond by saying that Labour should moderate its ambitions. Starmer’s election manifesto was a coy document, especially on public spending. Yet it still promised to “double onshore wind, triple solar power, and quadruple offshore wind by 2030”, to build 1.5 million homes, and to rebuild a collapsing NHS in an ageing society. To achieve these laudable missions, the new Labour government may find itself prioritising – and making enemies among the people who voted it into power.

Nor are cautious strategies immune from voter pressure. When Labour governments have deliberately constrained spending, as in the late 1960s or during Tony Blair’s first government, they have either been kicked out of office or found themselves changing tack to forestall voter discontent.

2. Manage trade unions with care

Labour governments must take extreme care over their relationship with the trade unions. The unions are probably still a more resilient support base for Labour than business, despite being weakened since the 1970s.

Labour originated from the unions and still benefits from their funding and organisational capacity. Trade unions often sympathise with Labour policies. However, a government’s strategy may still clash with core union priorities: higher pay and better conditions for its members.

Labour history is full of such conflicts, including the winter of discontent. Muttering darkly about communist infiltration, Labour prime minister Harold Wilson even declared a state of emergency over a 1966 dispute with seamen, worrying that their industrial action could spark economic instability. Marxist critics like David Coates later said Labour had deployed the state against its “working class base”.

Economic growth, if it does come, would ease these tensions. But Labour shouldn’t bank on it. Even in benign economic conditions, Blair’s Labour had to sign the 2004 Warwick agreement to ensure union support. It moderated some of Blair’s key agendas, like the use of private finance initiatives and private services in the public sector.

Starmer has pledged to strengthen the “collective voice of workers” through pro-trade union reform but his plans for net zero transition make unions representing oil and gas workers nervous and he remains ambiguous about pay in the highly unionised public sector. Managing union relations will be critical to the success of his plans.

3. Foreign policy can tear your party apart

Labour governments struggle to remain united on foreign policy. Labour has long been influenced by pacifist, internationalist and humanitarian movements. But Labour governments have had to govern, first, an empire, then an Atlanticist nuclear power. Tensions were inevitable.

Almost every Labour government splits over its foreign agenda. There are successes, such as Ramsay MacDonald’s role in the Dawes plan for German reparations after the first world war. Yet Aneurin Bevan and Harold Wilson, respectively the NHS’s founder and the future Labour prime minister, acrimoniously resigned from Attlee’s cabinet over the introduction of NHS prescription charges to fund rearmament for the Korean war. The subsequent factional warfare crippled Labour for the rest of the 1950s.

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As historian Rhiannon Vickers notes, once he was prime minister, Wilson managed, impressively, to walk a tightrope on the Vietnam war by offering his American allies moral but not military support. But he still split his party and sparked protests on the streets. And the 2003 Iraq war not only sparked cabinet resignations and mass protests against Blair’s government at the time, but in hindsight has cast a shadow over his premiership.

Starmer’s government confronts a grim geopolitical scene, which will place further demands on its political and (crucially) financial resources. His party is also riven over the Gaza catastrophe and the extent to which a Labour government should lead Western allies on Palestinian statehood. This has already cost Labour politically, with several pro-Gaza independents winning seats or slashing Labour majorities. Mobilised protesters will continue hold Starmer’s feet to the fire.

Starmer’s government will encounter at least some of these traps. Yet, as the past successes of Labour’s governments attest, they are surmountable. The key is to be strategic enough to anticipate such hazards, and agile enough to respond to them effectively.

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