I've literally written the book on how Labour wins or loses power, and Starmer is off to a good start

The emerging signs of policy shifts that voters can get behind – like an interventionist strategy to save jobs at the Grangemouth oil refinery – suggest Keir Starmer understands what he needs to do to stay in power

Watching Keir Starmer take his ceremonial saunter up Downing Street as Labour’s new Prime Minister was a moment which prompted memories of Gordon Brown’s walk

in the opposite direction 14 years ago. Much has happened to the country since Brown left office in 2010, but little of merit.

In writing my book, How Labour Wins: (And Why It Loses) From 1900 to 2024, I had found myself thinking about what could have been if Labour had managed to hold on to power under Brown, preventing the crushing and needless austerity which immediately followed. The point is that the outcomes of general elections, despite a growing media focus on the personality of the Prime Minister, have very tangible impacts on our lives.

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This has always been the case, but I saw it writ large when looking back across the decades at Labour’s electoral fortunes. For instance, what might have happened had Labour, in power after the Second World War, ignored the findings of the great Beveridge Report and played it safe with Britain deep in post-war debt?

Keir Starmer enters 10 Downing Street with his wife Victoria Starmer 14 years after the last Labour Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, left office (Picture: Stefan Rousseau/WPA pool/Getty Images)Keir Starmer enters 10 Downing Street with his wife Victoria Starmer 14 years after the last Labour Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, left office (Picture: Stefan Rousseau/WPA pool/Getty Images)
Keir Starmer enters 10 Downing Street with his wife Victoria Starmer 14 years after the last Labour Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, left office (Picture: Stefan Rousseau/WPA pool/Getty Images)

Instead, with the party proclaiming in its manifesto that “the nation wants food, work and homes”, much of British industry came under public control, the welfare state was built and the National Health Service founded. In short, millions of lives were not only improved but saved by Labour.

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Starmer vows to reset relations between UK and Scottish governments

Scotland voted for change

Now, powered again by enough MPs from Scotland to pack a carriage on the Caledonian Sleeper, it will be interesting to see how Starmer’s government acts to shape our lives for the better, and how in doing so ministers navigate their way towards further electoral success.

How Labour Wins (And Why It Loses) From 1900 to 2024 by Douglas BeattieHow Labour Wins (And Why It Loses) From 1900 to 2024 by Douglas Beattie
How Labour Wins (And Why It Loses) From 1900 to 2024 by Douglas Beattie

While most of the media class in London will remain focused on Westminster, not only in the short term for the King’s Speech but in the months beyond, really it is the Holyrood elections which will provide the first substantive test for this new Labour government.

Slated for no later than May 2026, these will act as a signpost to Labour strategists about how their whole project in government is going. Labour won on a platform of change, and nowhere more than Scotland did that cut through. What is not known yet is whether Scots were voting Labour simply as a reaction against a detested Conservative government at Westminster and, of late, a shambolic SNP administration in Edinburgh.

Starmer and his colleagues would be wise to understand that if 2024 told us anything, it is that the electorate is perfectly capable of voting systematically against parties as much as for them. There is no guarantee that a good portion of the votes Labour won in Scotland last Thursday will again be theirs come elections to the Scottish Parliament.

Fiscal rules

Starmer will need to be mindful that very many people right across the country are eager now to see a distinct leftward turn away from the Tory years. There will be immediate pressure on Labour ministers to demonstrate that their ubiquitous notion of “change” is one which directly improves people’s lives.

Patience may be required, not least because the Chancellor, Rachel Reeves, will stick rigidly to her “fiscal rules”. These serve a dual purpose – in the first instance, making it clear there can be no major increase in spending until growth has properly returned to the economy, and secondly protecting the government against claims from the political right that they will revert to tax and spend at the first opportunity.

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In this context, Labour will need to take action where it can and communicate this often and effectively. Starmer’s visit to Edinburgh on Sunday, and his meeting with First Minister John Swinney, has already highlighted this strategy.

Not only does this demonstrate a change of approach by the UK Government to its Scottish counterpart, but the Prime Minister pointed to a joined-up, interventionist strategy to save jobs at the Grangemouth oil refinery. None of this would have happened under Starmer’s recent predecessors.

Echoes of Harold Wilson

All of this is perfectly in keeping with his first speech as Prime Minister. In this he spoke of “national renewal”, “belief in a better future”, a government “unburdened by doctrine” and of “urgent work” in rebuilding Britain.

There were echoes of Harold Wilson in the tone of these remarks. Returning to Downing Street in February 1974 after years of industrial strife under Ted Heath, Wilson told reporters “we have got a job to do, we can only do that job as one people and I’m going right in to start that job now”.

Labour, in following Wilson’s example, could do worse now than to prioritise their commitment to strengthening workers’ rights with their ‘New Deal for Working People’ and an Employment Rights Bill. The King’s Speech should also restate the manifesto commitment to nationalise the railways, giving millions of passengers reason to rejoice; and expect to see Labour make good on promises to base GB Energy in Scotland.

I suspect serious efforts will be made to lift people out of poverty, an issue which unites Labour folk across the board and helps to block off some of the avenues Nigel Farage would willingly use to enhance his Reform UK populism.

The rub for Starmer will simply be meeting expectations within the fiscal framework he and Reeves have set themselves. Asking for ten years to undertake national renewal does not mean they will be granted such latitude.

However, seeing the emerging signs of policy shifts that voters can get behind suggests that even in the early days of this new government how Labour wins next time is not a question likely to be overlooked.

Douglas Beattie is the author of How Labour Wins: (And Why It Loses) From 1900 to 2024

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