May 24, 2024

What to Expect from a Labour Government

To the surprise of most, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has called a snap election for July 4. The opposition Labour Party is widely expected to win it.

British opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer attends a Labour general election campaign event at Priestfield Stadium, the home of Gillingham football club in Gillingham, southeast Britain, May 23, 2024.
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Follow the money. A month ago, the Financial Times reported that the Labour Party had sold out its “business day” event for its annual conference in Liverpool in September less than 24 hours after tickets went on sale. 

The newspaper quoted the head of a public affairs company as describing the rush for tickets as “the corporate equivalent of going to Glastonbury,” the famous, often muddy open-air music festival in the English countryside. Some 500 top executives paid up to £3,000 for a ticket, twice the amount for the equivalent event in 2023, swelling Labour’s coffers by more than £1 million. By British campaigning standards, that is serious income.

The assumption then was that the conference season would take place around the time the starting gun would be fired for an autumn election, most likely in November. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, however, had other ideas, surprising all but his inner circle this week by announcing an early election on July 4.


For British prime ministers, the election date is one of the few moments in which they enjoy complete control. Only they have the right to call it, to go the monarch to ask for a dissolution of parliament. Yet, the drama quickly turned to bathos. For reasons that personify the haplessness of his brief tenure—and the clownishness of most of the past eight years of Conservative Party rule—Sunak decided to make his declaration from a lectern outside 10 Downing Street. 

The abiding image was of a floundering leader, his black suit drenched in the pouring rain, and drowned out by a megaphone re-playing Labour’s anthem of 1997, “Things can only get better.” The usually supportive Spectator magazine brought out an election special with the cover headline “deluge.” And it had only just begun.

In the ensuing 48 hours the optics went from bad to worse. Several Conservatives muttered their disbelief at the decision to hold an early election at a time when their party was languishing 20 percentage points in the opinion polls. They had clung to the hope that the so-called economic “bounce” would gradually enter the public’s consciousness.

The talk of the town was that Sunak had chosen the date—with its unfortunate moniker “Independence Day”—because he was keen to hotfoot it to California where a position with an AI company beckons. He and his wife could use the summer looking for a mansion and schools for the children. His summit last November with senior tech chiefs at Bletchley Park, the World War II codebreaking center, including a fawning in-conversation with Elon Musk, were seen as an open job interview.

Such disparaging observations are not mine. Nor do they come from his political opponents. Rather they come from his own side, from Conservative MPs who have been gunning for him from the moment he took over in October 2022 after the 49-day absurdity of Liz Truss. 

Staying Dry

Labour aides, meanwhile, ensured that their leader, Keir Starmer, stayed dry by giving his message to the nation indoors, flanked by giant Union Jacks. The messaging is anything but subtle: old-fashioned British patriotism accompanied by the word “CHANGE” emblazoned on every poster and leaflet.

Labour HQ was, like everyone, taken aback by Sunak’s choice of date. But it had been ready for a possible snap election since the start of the year. Now everyone has been deployed into the campaign, to the six weeks of knocking on doors, online canvassing, and preparations for television debates. 

Quite a few Labour figures are in full PFG mode. That means Preparation for Government. Ahead of any election, all the main opposition parties are allowed formal meetings with civil servants to discuss the machinery of government. Sometimes it has the appearance of a Potemkin Village, such as in 2017 and 2019 when the hard-left Jeremy Corbyn was leader. The chances of him taking office were remote, but everyone was required to go through the motions.

Not this time. Starmer may repeat the mantra of “no complacency” and use the conditional when talking about becoming prime minister and, of course, an enormous scandal could conceivably appear that might knock him off his perch; but all eyes are already on his first 100 days.

A Step-By-Step Approach

Starmer is hoping to fix Britain’s battered public services while inheriting an almost empty exchequer. He has been abundantly clear with voters and his party, almost to the point of being demoralizing, that discernible progress will take years. He is urging voters to give him at least two terms in office, a decade. 

But he will want to move quickly in those areas where he can make an early difference. Domestically, he wants to introduce a domestic agency to harness the energy sector; he will levy VAT on fee-paying schools to help the state sector. And he will, to the concern of some in business, modify employment law to give more immediate protection for workers.

On the international front, expect an early trip to Kyiv to support Ukraine. Gaza, an explosive issue for Labour, will be harder to reconcile with a perceived recent history of antisemitism under Corbyn. Europe will be the acid test. Starmer will take a step-by-step approach, holding early talks with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron, and—if she is re-elected—European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Expect no grand flourishes about the European Union, rather attempts at incremental improvements in relations. As for the possible return of Donald Trump, at least now Starmer will have six months to prepare. 

A Somber Atmosphere

The atmosphere is much more somber compared to Labour’s last victory. Yet in some ways history is about to repeat itself. Those with a long memory can recall October 1996. The conference venue then was unprepossessing, the battered and bruised northern coastal town of Blackpool. Yet hundreds of chief executives and chairmen had made their way to this unfamiliar clime to press the flesh with a young Labour leader, Tony Blair.

One journalist had his mind on another group. “The unanimous opinion is that what has been called the ‘Tottymeter reading' is higher than at any Labour Party Conference in living memory,” Boris Johnson told readers of the Daily Telegraph. Totty was a word in vogue among a certain circle, a word that would now be considered either vulgar or misogynistic depending on your sensibility. “The real reason why Blackpool is buzzing with glamorous women is surely that they scent victory,” Johnson wrote in his childish, breathless style. “It is the whiff of power. With the fickleness of their sex, they are following the polls.”

He devoted scant attention to the more convincing determiner of the power relationship —the corporate world. In foreign ministries and chancelleries across Europe and further afield, briefing papers have been assembled for the first meetings of heads of government with Prime Minister Starmer. 

I have yet to meet a single Tory who seriously believes that victory is possible. The betting is between a hung parliament requiring a coalition (seen as unlikely but not impossible) and a majority of indeterminate number, possibly all the way to the 179 achieved by Blair in May 1997. To get anywhere close to that, however, Starmer would have to achieve a swing far greater than his mentor.

Conservative MPs are voting with their feet. At the time of writing, a record 73 had submitted their resignations; some had done so a while ago, others last week in a matter of hours. Those leaving the House of Commons include former Prime Minister Theresa May, ex-Defense Secretary Ben Wallace and one-time Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab. 

Head-hunters are reporting a sudden upsurge in enquiries from outgoing Tory MPs looking for jobs, a deluge of a different kind. The problem they will find is that the brand they were working for is considerably tarnished and their address books will not be worth much. Sunak will frantically crisscross the UK in search of votes, but most people appear to have moved on.

John Kampfner is a regular contributor to The Guardian, Foreign Policy, and DIE ZEIT. His new book, “In Search of Berlin,” was published in late 2023.

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