What a U.K. Labour Win Means for the Global Left (2024)

I am bad at small talk, so I went in big. “You are probably going to be the social democratic leader with the largest parliamentary majority anywhere on Earth. How does it feel?” I said to Keir Starmer during a private meeting with him and a few advisors in late 2022.

I am bad at small talk, so I went in big. “You are probably going to be the social democratic leader with the largest parliamentary majority anywhere on Earth. How does it feel?” I said to Keir Starmer during a private meeting with him and a few advisors in late 2022.

Starmer’s aides looked annoyed, while the likely next prime minister of the United Kingdom paused and tried to deflect: “We can’t take anything for granted,” which has become the unofficial motto for Labour’s general election campaign.

Yet despite Starmer’s hesitancy to bank success—he is genuinely a modest man—it is likely that on the morning of July 5, Starmer will wake up as the world’s social democratic superhero: the only center-left leader of a major economy with a parliamentary supermajority and the great hope for progressives all over the world.

The governing Conservative Party, which is historically arguably the most successful political party on Earth, now faces electoral oblivion. In 2019, Boris Johnson demolished Labour’s heartlands, the so-called red wall. Labour had become detached from its base and collapsed in its postindustrial heartlands after then-leader Jeremy Corbyn embraced the siren sounds of political extremism; he refused to sing the national anthem at a memorial for the Battle of Britain and drove the party toward a position of fiscal incontinence that scared anyone with financial assets.

Five years later, Labour is on track not only to regain the red wall but also to achieve a dream of progressives by taking solid Conservative seats in their blue wall of affluent commuter constituencies surrounding London and rural seats that have voted Conservative since time immemorial. (East Worthing and Shoreham, for example, is part of a constituency that first voted Tory in 1780 and has been reliably Tory since. Polls suggest Labour is on track to take the seat.)

What is happening in the U.K. is unusual for center-left parties, to put it mildly. Labour could gain as many as 70 percent of seats in the House of Commons—a victory that could surpass even the electoral landside of former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1997, offering lessons for progressives everywhere. A politically dominant Starmer will attend the G-7 as a leader in total political control, in stark contrast to his counterparts in France and Germany, Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz, who are facing high disapproval ratings and struggling to pursue their governing agendas.

Labour’s victory in the U.K. will be important in three key regards: It will recast how progressives can win national elections and set a high-water mark for what social democrats can achieve; it will reshape British politics in new and unexpected ways that could be more important than the victory itself; and it will flip external perceptions of the U.K., resetting international views of the country and its future.

What a U.K. Labour Win Means for the Global Left (1)

A demonstrator holds a sign calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Downing Street in London on April 13, 2022.Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

Despite the pathological obsession Britain’s political class has with America’s, it is perhaps time for Democrats in the United States to look across the pond and glean some lessons from Labour’s success.

Part of Starmer’s success has been to take an oath of omertà on culture war issues, much as the Australian Labor Party did. These include transgender rights, Britain’s colonial past, and immigration—all issues that the British right has tried to capitalize on. Starmer, a former human rights lawyer, has committed to scrap the Tories’ controversial Rwanda deportation scheme but on the grounds of practicality rather than as a wider moral statement. More broadly on immigration, the party has been treading very carefully. This is certainly not brave, but it has worked. For all the attempts to fire up the culture wars in this election, Labour has remained focused on the prize.

While the Conservatives have attempted to stoke a culture war, what remains more salient for voters in the U.K. is the perceived corruption and rule-breaking of leading Conservatives, culminating in the current scandal involving elected officials using insider information to bet on the election date.

Scandals including preferential contracts for protective equipment for the National Health Service (NHS) during the COVID-19 pandemic, where an astonishing 4 billion pounds ($5 billion) worth of faulty equipment was procured (some allegedly from companies with links to the ruling party). Then came “Partygate,” in which Johnson and current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak were fined by police for breaking COVID-era laws. A lobbying scandal involving another former prime minister, David Cameron, also caused significant public anger. Elite rule-breaking has cut through with voters in a way that the endless culture wars simply haven’t.

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In parallel, Labour has pivoted from a form of identity politics under Corbyn to a very proactive position on class. Starmer has put his humble upbringing center stage in the U.K. election campaign and has spoken authentically about the “class ceiling” in British society. This has particular resonance as Starmer is running against Sunak, whose net wealth of $822 million makes him the richest leader of any democracy.

A typical Starmer set-piece homily is as follows:

“My dad was a toolmaker, he worked in a factory, and my mum was a nurse. We didn’t have a lot when we were growing up. Like millions of working-class children now, I grew up in a cost-of-living crisis. I know what it feels like to be embarrassed to bring your mates home because the carpet is threadbare and the windows cracked. … I was actually responsible for that as I put the football through it.”

This focus on class is unusual in modern British politics. Indeed, recent Labour leaders—from Blair to Gordon Brown to Ed Miliband to Corbyn—were all in different ways outsiders to the British working class: Blair and Corbyn for their relatively affluent (and privately educated) upbringings, Brown and Miliband because of their middle-class backgrounds and partly because Miliband’s father was one of the country’s most notable Marxist academics. As for the Conservatives, the days of a prime minister who was a grocer’s daughter are long gone. Cameron and Johnson didn’t just attend the same elite private school (Eton) two years apart; they went to the same university (Oxford) and were members of the same private dining club (for the most privileged).

Starmer is leaning into class politics—and it is working. The promise to impose the same value-added tax on private school fees that is applied to most goods and services (20 percent) has led to an outpouring of anger from the often very wealthy 6 percent of U.K. parents who send their kids to private schools—usefully, those who are privately educated often tend to vote Conservative. Labour’s pledge to use the private school tax revenues to invest in education for the 94 percent of kids in state schools has, on the other hand, drawn support from ordinary voters.

This focus on class has won back a group of voters who in other countries have now been captured by the right and far right. Labour now leads among working-class voters with 38-42 percent of the vote share, in contrast to Conservatives’ 22-24 percent. For those with the fewest educational qualifications, Labour leads in every age category except the over-50s.

One of the architects of Labour’s reengagement with the British working class is Angela Rayner, who is on track to become deputy prime minister. Rayner is working-class, was a mother at 16, and a grandmother at 37. Opinionated and unfiltered, an unapologetic smoker who enjoys a strong drink, she worked in a care home before rising quickly through the trade union movement and becoming a Labour candidate. Rayner’s story is a masterclass in how to elevate remarkable people into parliamentary politics. Her success is her own, but the unions cultivated her, and the membership backed her as deputy leader. She has real star power—and there is virtually no one like her in the upper echelons of the Democratic establishment in the United States.

Remarkably, the class dimension has not, it seems, alienated middle England. Disillusioned surbubanites and centrist liberals have been turned off by a Conservative Party that seems increasingly radical and dysfunctional. Starmer’s former career as the country’s chief prosecutor, and his knighthood—he is formally referred to as “Sir Keir”—have given him broad appeal, just as the Conservatives’ unapologetic embrace of the populist right’s pet causes has cratered their support.

What a U.K. Labour Win Means for the Global Left (5)

Rishi Sunak (center, right) is his greeted by MP Rebecca Pow and colleagues in London on Oct. 24, 2022, after having been announced as the winner of the Conservative Party leadership contest.Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images

Part of Labour’s success is due to the systemic clusterf*ck that has been the last few years of the Conservative government. The Tories have foisted five prime ministers on the public since 2010—four of them elected by the party’s mostly white, male membership of about 170,000 rather than the public at large. Economic growth is anemic; there are nearly 8 million people on the NHS waiting list in England alone (in a country where the use of private medical care is uncommon); and essential public services including the prison service and local government are on the edge of systemic failure.

Yet signs exist that there may be more fundamental shifts at play. Labour leads in every age group except the over-65s. If you work, you are more likely to vote Labour; 45 percent of voters under 45 are likely to vote Labour, compared with only 1 in 10 backing the Conservative Party. Millennials will become the largest voting bloc in the U.K. in this election. Their key issues include policies to prevent catastrophic climate change (which poll well across the U.K. political spectrum), the building of homes, better transport links (especially for non-car owners, many urban millennials among them), and pro-family policies. All of these have come into play in this election.

Older homeowners across the Western world have been successful in running what is, potentially, the world’s largest cartel—by opposing construction of new homes for millennials. Labour is committed to ending that in the U.K. with a significant loosening of planning regulations that currently thwart sustainable development.

While the party has ruled out taxes on working people, no such commitment has been made on unearned income, leading to widespread speculation that the tax system may be rebalanced with higher capital gains taxes and fewer loopholes for the megarich, including for the landed gentry whose farming estates pass between generations tax-free. Labour has no love for landlords either. After nearly two decades in which London’s property market has been inflated by speculative investments from the world’s kleptocrats, the public appetite for new restrictions on foreign property ownership or new taxes has grown.

Labour has also surrounded itself with a technocratic positivist elite. This group includes Labour Together, an ambitious intellectual think tank closely aligned with Starmer’s inner circle, and the Tony Blair Institute, which has embraced a techno-futurism aligned with the country’s comparative advantage in the life sciences and artificial intelligence. Public sector reform under a Starmer government could be significant if one imagines the potential, for example, of using the NHS’s treasure trove of data (on 70 million people) to drive innovation in health care.

In stark contrast to Labour’s focus on the future, an aging right-wing voter base is now split between the Conservative Party and Reform, a vehicle that is a mix between a private company, a political party, and a personal platform for Nigel Farage—the pro-Brexit politician Donald Trump has trotted out as a posh Anglo stage prop. Conservatives in Parliament are already moving rightward. Tory MPs give statements to the media condemning the European Convention on Human Rights, a document co-drafted by David Maxwell-Fyfe—a Conservative MP and prosecutor of Nazis at Nuremberg—that was inspired by Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s vision for postwar Europe.

Meanwhile, a wing of Conservative MPs are already attempting to cast the almost certain defeat as evidence that the party did not pivot enough to the populist right. The divided right is making the admission of the controversial Farage into the Conservative Party a real possibility, a prospect that fills Labour with glee. Needless to say, the next Conservative leader is unlikely to be a moderate. With the party tacking to the right, it could soon become a vessel for Faragism and a weak British version of the Trump movement.

What a U.K. Labour Win Means for the Global Left (6)

Artist Ciaran Gallagher puts the finishing touches on a mural depicting Conservative contenders Sunak (left) and Liz Truss (right) in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on Aug. 17, 2022, ahead of the party leadership contest. Paul Faith/ AFP via Getty Images

Finally, there are the vibes. A progressive recasting of British politics will shift narratives around the U.K. National narratives can flip in an instant: Think of foreigners’ perceptions of the United States from Barack Obama to Trump or the assumption of Chinese economic primacy to a sense of retrenchment and decline under Xi Jinping. The U.K. in recent memory was seen as a fairly stable, politically dull island anchored somewhere in the mid-Atlantic. Brexit, Johnson, and Liz Truss put an end to that. With the shift from perceived and actual chaos and an insurgent right to a progressive supermajority, attitudes will likely shift again.

Vibes are important, especially to the economy of the U.K., which may have ceased to be a traditional superpower but remains a cultural one punching significantly above its weight internationally. Six percent of U.K. GDP comes from the creative industries—from the success of British music to the Premier League, a booming film and TV industry, fashion, and the arts. That’s double the level of Germany and larger than the contribution of the German car industry to the country’s output (4.5 percent). For a country that trades on vibes and is reliant on the export of its creativity, Brexit and isolation have caused real damage.

It’s long forgotten now, but during the last Labour government from 1997 until the 2008 financial crisis, the U.K. was the fastest-growing economy in the G-7, faster than that of the Clinton- and Bush-era United States. Given the country’s currently stagnant economy, the next Parliament will be more challenging, but in a highly open society, the role of consumer confidence and investor confidence cannot be underestimated.

In a previous piece in these pages, after Labour’s historic loss in the 2019 general election, I wrote: “Radical leftism is not a drug you can take as a party and return to normal the next morning.” I was right about the election but wrong about the next morning.

No one expected Labour to turn a historic defeat into a historic victory in just five years. The circ*mstances the Conservative Party faced were extraordinary, but Starmer has shown that tight party management, a focus on voters and not ideology, and a sprinkling of class-based politics can reinvigorate social democratic politics.

What lessons does this hold for other center-left parties?

First, culture war issues aren’t a central motivation for most voters. On all the major culture war issues, Labour holds a less popular position than the Conservative Party. Yet when mortgage rates have risen from 2 to 5 percent, “it’s the economy, stupid.” Progressives don’t need to fear the charge of the populist right; they need smarter answers.

Second, rule-breaking or perceived corruption is a powerful motivator for voters, and global polling proves this. Progressives need a stronger line on conflicts of interest, corporate lobbying, the kleptocratic buy-up of the finest properties in the world’s global cities, and tackling emerging monopolies that exist due to political capture. Doing so counters the populist right head-on.

Third, the dominance of identity politics in left-wing online spaces is not matched by public understanding of or interest in this form of politics. Class is understood, whereas intersectionality isn’t. Class may, or may not, be the most relevant dividing line for progressives in different places—but for progressives to win, they need messengers who are from outside the upper middle class and have lived experience that resonates with people who feel disenchanted and left behind. In other words, Democrats in the United States need an Angela Rayner.

Most critically, once in power, social democrats do not have the luxury of time. Crumbling infrastructure, failing public services, falling living standards, and a lack of housing all point to direct state intervention on a scale not seen since the late 1960s Great Society programs in the United States and similar policies during that era in the U.K. Unless progressives can deliver, it will be challenged further by a populist right that is gaining momentum.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act has been the talk of London and Brussels for progressives, and Biden deserves more credit for his boldness. With a supermajority, Starmer has the scope for even bolder programs. A progressive U.K. government will not only reset Europeans’ views of the country, but if successful, it can aid progressive arguments within Europe that austerity and fiscalization do not generate economic growth or social stability.

Starmer’s victory will give global social democrats a high-water mark for electoral success in a wealthy democracy. The challenge for Starmer is the incredible weight of hope in an era of polycrisis. If Labour succeeds in delivering growth, building homes, and raising wages, then it will provide a blueprint that can—and should—be copied elsewhere.

What a U.K. Labour Win Means for the Global Left (2024)
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