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1924, Keir Starmer and New Labour

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Keir Starmer is, famously, named after Labour’s first leader, Keir Hardie, and might, therefore, be expected to have some knowledge of the Party’s history. If so, he will know that an important anniversary will soon be upon us: January 12th 2024 marks the centenary of the Party’s first government. What do the ensuing hundred years suggest about the Party’s prospects for defeating the Conservatives in 2024?

The point is topical. A General Election must be held within the next fifteen months. Starmer has recently reshuffled his Shadow Cabinet to make it election ready. The reshuffle has angered the Left, who lent cautious support to Starmer’s leadership in its early stages. As Owen Jones put it in the Guardian on 4th September, “the standout theme from this reshuffle is the ascendancy of the Blairites, cementing the repudiation of Starmer’s ‘Corbynism with competence and unity’ 2020 leadership pitch”. Indeed, the reappearance at Starmer’s shoulder of New Labour figures such as Mandelson and Blair himself suggests that he believes that a return to Blairism is the path to victory.

Is Starmer correct to think this? Victory in 2024 will require two things. The first is for Labour to secure an overall majority capable of surviving a full five-year term, allowing for the inevitable attrition due to by-elections, defections, and the like. The second is to do this from Opposition. The course of the last hundred years suggests that any Labour leader would find these two tasks difficult.

As regards a secure overall majority, I would suggest that a party needs to have a majority over all other parties of about 20 seats to survive for five years. Labour has, on a number of occasions, sought to govern without such Parliamentary support. This has generally not ended well: in 1924 itself, 1929-31 and 1950-1 Labour was quickly forced into a further General Election, resulting in a Conservative triumph in each case. Indeed, 1924 vividly illustrates Labour’s perennial difficulties. After struggling in office for nine months, Labour called an election only to be destroyed by the Daily Mail’s publication of the ‘Zinoviev letter’. This (forged) document purported to show that Labour was controlled by the Soviets, helping to return the Conservatives to office with a majority of 210.

If governing without a secure majority has proved difficult, obtaining such a majority has been an elusive goal. Outside the New Labour period of 1997-2010, of which more anon, the Party has only achieved this feat on two occasions: 1945 and 1966 (majorities of 147 and 97). By contrast, the Conservatives had no difficulty in securing sound majorities on no fewer than twelve occasions since 1924, majorities which allowed them in each case to govern for a full four-to-five-year term and then go the country at a time of their choosing.

Winning elections from Opposition is tricky.  The Conservatives managed this in 1924, 1931, 1951, 1966, 1979 and (more debatably) 2010, but it is evidently not straightforward to go directly from Opposition into government. Certainly, outside the New Labour era, Labour has never achieved this. In 1945, Labour had been in government as part of the wartime Coalition for five years. In 1966, Harold Wilson had survived with a slim majority of five for eighteen months prior to securing a working majority.

Apart from 1997, Labour has, therefore, never achieved a secure majority from Opposition. And, with the arguable exception of 1974-1979, attempting to rule without such a majority has not proved easy. It is against this background that the electoral successes of New Labour are so remarkable. Three things stand out from that era.

The first, obvious, achievement was that Labour had majorities of 178, 166, and 65 in 1997, 2001 and 2005. The latter victory was secured despite the Iraq War, which caused a significant number of voters to drain away. These results enabled New Labour to govern for three full terms and determine the dates of the subsequent General Elections. As we have seen, such political luxury has generally only been vouchsafed to the Tories.

Secondly, and, unprecedently, Labour won in 1997 from Opposition, overturning a Tory majority of 21 with a swing of 10.2 %, surpassed only by that of 12% in 1945 (when Labour had already been in government). Labour has never done this – obtain a secure majority – from Opposition, before or since.

Thirdly, the New Labour electoral brand proved remarkably resilient, even in 2010 and even in the aftermath of the financial crisis. By 2010, the Conservatives had a new young leader in David Cameron, Labour had been in power for thirteen years, and Gordon Brown lacked the glamour which Blair had exuded in 1997. Even so, Labour secured 258 seats, providing the opportunity for a progressive coalition with the Liberal Democrats and others to keep the Tories out of power, perhaps for ever. (In fact, the Liberal Democrats chose to go into government with the Conservatives, opening the door to thirteen years (and counting) of Tory government).

The past is not necessarily a guide to the future. The circumstances of 2024 will be different from those of 1997. But if Starmer is looking to New Labour’s electoral record as a blueprint for success, he may well be right to do so. This is not the place to debate whether New Labour were really Labour at all or to consider the highs and lows of the 1997-2010 period. What does seem clear, however, is that Labour under Blair and Brown achieved electoral results which the Party has never secured before or since. The “ascendancy of the Blairites” may make electoral sense, even if some will shudder at the policy implications. And electoral outcomes before and since seem to bear out the Conservative politician Reginald Maudling's 1970 remark that Britain is a Conservative country that sometimes votes Labour.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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