What would a Labour government look like?

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Sunday 29 October, Church House, London


After Labour’s catastrophic haemorrhaging of Red Wall voters in 2019, and widespread disillusion among working-class Brexit voters, Labour seems to be back in contention. For some time, Labour has been way ahead of the Conservatives in the opinion polls. But the gap between the parties became a chasm after the resignation of Boris Johnson and the debacle of Liz Truss’s short-lived premiership. Now, with Labour running roughly 20 points ahead in the polls, a substantial majority at the next election – which must happen no later than January 2025 – seems highly likely. But assuming Labour does win power, what would Keir Starmer actually do?

The answer is, perhaps: who knows? Yes, there has been some headline-grabbing radical proposals such as abolishing the House of Lords and replacing it with an elected chamber of regions and nations. When he won the leadership vote in April 2020, Starmer had stood on a platform of 10 pledges – from increasing income tax for the rich and abolishing universal credit to ‘support’ for ‘common ownership of rail, mail, energy and water’ and a ‘green new deal’.

Since then, Starmer and his shadow ministers have moved away from many of these pledges. For example, plans to abolish university tuition fees have been scrapped, and universal credit looks like it will be ‘reformed’ – but with the two-child limit for benefits left in place. Nationalisation plans have been replaced with the idea of greater regulation. Plans to introduce self-ID for transgender people have been shelved (despite having voted for the SNP’s infamous Gender Recognition Reform Bill, and with no apology forthcoming to its much maligned gender-critical MP Rosie Duffield) as has the idea of reintroducing free movement for EU nationals. Inevitably, the Corbynista wing of the party shout betrayal. With Blair and Mandelson back in the mix, some on the Left dread New Labour Mark 2, without the charisma or vision.

Despite its uber-technocratic pragmatism, many fear Labour has fundamentally changed – emptied of its working-class credentials, instead assuming the garb of identitarian social justice. It seems most comfortable arguing for laws against misogyny, condemning institutional racism or celebrating Pride than either full-throttled support for picket-line strikers or taking up the cause of free speech when under assault from progressive ideologues. It’s true that Labour’s centrepiece policy of a ‘green prosperity plan’ has been watered down from £28 billion per year to an aspiration to be achieved at some point in a Labour administration. But its championing of eco policies – such as heat-pump boilers, anti-driver measures such as ULEZ and LTNs or its financial entanglement with the funder of Just Stop Oil – means that many fear Labour is tin-eared when voters are sceptical of its right-on, illiberal and expensive zealous approach to net-zero targets.

With Starmer’s strategy appearing to be avoiding controversy and allowing the Conservatives to implode, does Labour really stand for anything new? Or is this a cowards’ avoidance of being bold? Should we be patient – will more radical policies emerge after an election victory? Will its progressive credentials be more woke than economically daring? And, of course, can Labour ever be trusted in Red Wall areas for its Brexit betrayal – or indeed by its new Remainer electoral base for saying Brexit is a ‘done deal’?


Dr Tim Black
books and essays editor, spiked

Dr Richard Johnson
writer; senior lecturer in US politics, Queen Mary, University of London; co-author, Keeping the Red Flag Flying: The Labour Party in Opposition since 1922 (forthcoming)

Mark Seddon
director, Centre for UN Studies, University of Buckingham; board member, Foreign Correspondents Association, New York; co-author, Jeremy Corbyn and the Strange Rebirth of Labour England

James Smith
host, The Popular Show podcast; writer; academic

Joan Smith
author & columnist

Paddy Hannam
researcher, House of Commons; writer and commentator