What the Labour Party’s big win in the UK will actually mean (2024)

The United Kingdom’s left-leaning Labour Party won — and won big — in the country’s national elections on Thursday, returning to power after 14 years of Conservative Party leadership.

Labour made many promises in the party’s quest to win the race, and keeping them will be a gargantuan task that will require tackling Britain’s biggest issues including the cost of living, immigration, and rebuilding the country’s services like the health and transportation systems. A mixture of poor policy and world events outside the government’s control has left the UK’s economy struggling, translating to wage stagnation and lack of investment in state services.

The party’s exact approach to those issues is still coalescing as the party gets a sense of how it will wield its newfound power.

After a truly chaotic spin through three Conservative prime ministers in just under four months, Labour’s message of stability has resonated with the electorate as they voted in Labour members for a majority of the 650 House of Commons seats, making its leader, Keir Starmer, prime minister.

Starmer is a bit of a cypher, his platform this campaign has often been vague or unexciting, and the British public is decidedly lukewarm on him as a figure. But he’s successfully rehabilitated the Labour Party’s image with more moderate voters, and, above all, what he has going for him is that he isn’t a Conservative.

“[Conservatives are] suffering from having been in power for 14 years,” Ben Ansell, professor of comparative democratic institutions at Nuffield College, Oxford, told Vox. “And it’s very, very hard at that point to win another election anywhere.”

Labour’s campaign slogan is simple: “Change.” But now it won’t be enough to simply be the alternative to the Conservatives; Labour must actually deliver on the main policy issues people are concerned about in order to create the stable government it needs to stay in power.

Britain’s multiple overlapping crises developed over years, and they won’t be instantly solved just by a change in leadership.

Take the UK’s battered public services. When the Conservatives (also known as the Tories) came to power in 2010 under current Foreign Minister David Cameron, the world was reeling from the 2008 financial crisis. The UK was particularly hard-hit, with much of its economy based in the financial sector.

To dig the country out of dire financial straits, Cameron’s government decided to disinvest in social services like the national health service (NHS), education, and transit, particularly the railways. That choice still reverberates today, and has meant long waits to see doctors, crumbling public schools, wage stagnation in the care and state services sectors and, accordingly, labor strikes to protest working conditions and pay.

And though the economic and cost of living crisis is not unique to the UK, some Tory decisions have made its situation uniquely challenging. The choice to leave the European Union, first decided in a referendum in 2016 and pushed through by Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson in 2019, has had detrimental effects to trade, employment, and the cost of living. One independent analysis estimated that the UK’s real GDP is about 2 to 3 percent lower today than it would be if it had stayed in the EU. The decision to leave the EU is now deeply unpopular.

The Tories have overseen “singularly the worst economic performance of any decade in Britain since the Napoleonic era,” Ansell said, making Labour’s promised change — ambiguous though it is — attractive.

Scandals and policy flip-flops didn’t help Conservatives either. Johnson fell from grace following a series of scandals known as Partygate, in which he allowed or participated in social gatherings during the Covid-19 pandemic, while the rest of the country was in lockdown. Following his 2022 ouster, Liz Truss — Johnson’s foreign secretary — won leadership of the party and the country. She lasted all of 44 days following her proposal to cut taxes on corporations and the ultra-wealthy that was so disastrous it threw global bond markets into panic for weeks. Current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak followed her, positioning himself as the adult in the room who could set things straight.

But his signature policy position has been to “stop the boats,” referring to the surge in irregular migration via small boats crossing the English Channel from Europe. To do that, his government has pursued a policy to detain and deport irregular migrants to Rwanda. In addition to effectively violating the right to asylum, the plan has been ineffective; no one has been sent to Rwanda, although some migrants have been detained under the scheme, costing the government an estimated 8 million pounds per day. It’s also worth noting: migrants seeking asylum make up only about 11 percent of Britain’s migrant population.

And though migration overall was at an all-time high in 2022, much of the electorate doesn’t actually see migration as one of their top three issues — and people’s feelings about migration are highly fractured. In a sense, the Tory government suffered from a crisis of its own making with the Rwanda policy and the Illegal Migration Act — instituting draconian policies that haven’t been successful and that voters see as costly.

All of this dysfunction culminated in the Tories’ defeat. (Heading into the election, the Economist even endorsed Labour for the first time in almost two decades.)

Labour’s signature achievements in the post-World War II era have been forming the NHS and instituting a national minimum wage. Now, the party has to tackle three overlapping marquee issues: the economy and cost of living; struggling government services; and migration policy. But, as outlined in its election manifesto, Labour’s policy suggestions aren’t terribly specific or fleshed out in most cases. In the short term, the party is likely to focus on trying to create a stable government to prove it should maintain power.

In the short term Starmer and Labour have promised to undo the Rwanda policy immediately on gaining power, focusing on the human smuggling groups that operate and profit from the dangerous boat crossings. Labour says the government will again allow irregular migrants to apply for asylum, and has promised to sort through the backlog of asylum cases which have not been processed due to the Illegal Migration Act.

As for the economy, Labour has promised to invest in industry and create a pro-business environment, without outlining what that means specifically. In terms of managing the cost of living crisis, Labour could increase the minimum wage or encourage cities to adopt “living wages,” as Oxford has, a localized norm that recognizes the different cost of living in different areas.

Labour will opt to “improve the UK’s trade and investment relationship with the EU, by tearing down unnecessary barriers to trade,” though it will not rejoin the EU or the common market. Negotiating agreements about agriculture and livestock aim to bring down food costs, and professional services agreements will help UK professionals work in EU countries.

Labour has also promised to “save the NHS” and build a health service for the future. But that will require public investment, as Starmer’s party has promised the service will always be publicly funded. That means money from somewhere, and raising individual taxes right now isn’t an appealing option given the economic challenges facing many voters. In the short term, Labour promises to reduce wait times, enlist the private sector to help deal with high volume, and improve relations with the health care unions.

But can Labour deliver — and maintain power?

How exactly Labour plans to accomplish their goals is an open question. Labour doesn’t really have a strong, bold new policy regarding the economy; there isn’t a big, splashy ideological framework.

And on one of the major factors dragging Britain’s economy down — Brexit — Labour plans to negotiate agreements about agriculture and livestock with the EU to bring down food costs, and hopes to make professional services agreements that will help UK professionals work in EU countries. Still, many of the economic pains of Brexit may remain.

And on migration, other than scrapping the Rwanda plan, there’s not too much daylight between Labour and the Tories.

“The current government already has quite a large focus on enforcement,” Ben Brindle, a researcher at the Oxford Migration Observatory, told Vox. Labour’s approach is “still doing many of the things which the current enforcement operation is already doing” to deter irregular migration. And when it comes to migration for students and skilled labor, net migration is likely to go down anyway due to policies already in place, rather than anything Labour is actually doing.

Labour does have proposals on hand to address the housing and transit crises — including by loosening up building restrictions in the immediate term so that new housing, infrastructure, and transit services can actually be built, which could help stimulate the economy.

“We’re using a planning regime that was created in 1948, that is incredibly stringent, and means that we’re just not building things anywhere,” Ansell said. “We have a housing crisis. We have a transportation crisis, and we have a public infrastructure crisis and an energy crisis — it’s all because we can’t build stuff. That gives [Labour] a narrative. It also gives businesses the expectation that actually there’s going to be loads and loads of infrastructure or investment and probably over quite a period of time.”

Ultimately, though, Labour sees building a stable government, especially after the years of uncertainty post-Brexit, as a useful framing — but potentially a part of its mandate. The party’s manifesto is built around the idea that it “can stop the chaos” which has helped exacerbate external problems into national crises when it is in power.

What the Labour Party’s big win in the UK will actually mean (2024)
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