Tack Right (Credit: Ian Forsyth/Getty)

May 25, 2023   5 mins

Labour Party leaders don’t usually win elections. Since 1945, only three have done so: Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair. In contrast, eight Conservative leaders have won majorities and a ninth — Theresa May — did just about well enough to remain prime minister. As Roger Scruton put it, Britain’s post-war history has been one in which “half the English people voted Conservative at national elections and almost all English intellectuals regarded the term ‘conservative’ as a term of abuse”.

Regardless of recent private polling showing Labour’s “floor” to be at the uncomfortably high mark for the Tories of around 330 seats — a working majority for Starmer — some Conservatives hold out hope. But if history is to be our guide, there are more than a few reasons to believe that Keir Starmer really might be on course to join Attlee, Wilson and Blair in No 10.

Labour’s three watershed election victories came in 1945, 1964 and 1997. Each time, the Party won after long periods of Conservative rule or Conservative-dominated government: 14, 13 and 18 years respectively. Sometimes the country just demands change — and the Tories will have been in power for 14 years by the time the next election is called.

But in each of these victories for Labour, it wasn’t just that voters decided a change was needed — it was that the party was best placed for a world that had already changed. By 1945, after all, much of the economy had effectively been nationalised to fight the war, and all the main parties had endorsed the Beveridge Report calling for a dramatic expansion of the welfare state. Whether Labour won power or not, Britain was not going back to the discredited pre-war settlement. But in 1945, Labour was simply more closely aligned with this new Britain than the Tories, with or without Churchill. In foreign policy terms, too, Attlee offered almost complete continuity.

Something similar happened in 1964 and 1997. By 1964, the Tories had already begun the great corporatist experiment to run the economy that Labour would claim as their own. In 1961, Macmillan had initiated a form of centrist managerialism, with voluntary wage controls to combat inflation and national councils established to bring industry and trade unions together. Labour, under Wilson, did not reject the system, but offered a more dynamic and professionalised management of it.

Wilson looked the part for the job, too. Young, smart and committed to the task, he stood in contrast to his opposite number, Alec Douglas Home, who had been parachuted in from the Lords. This early incarnation of Wilson is strikingly similar to Blair, in 1997, when he swept to power demanding a more modern, professional approach to managing the state, maintaining the economic settlement which had been in place since Black Wednesday in 1992, but with more focus on public services.

In each of these elections, Labour was not so much offering radical change, as a policy programme that went with the grain of politics. And something similar is happening today. The pandemic, Net Zero and an ageing population have combined with the rise of China to create a world in which the state has become far more central to the success of an economy than before — a situation which fits far more comfortably into Labour’s economic philosophy than the Tories.

Since 2016, the Conservative Party has taken back regulatory control of the British economy by leaving the EU; it has increased taxes to their highest levels on record to pay for its interventions during the pandemic; and it has dramatically expanded the size of the state by offering to pay for childcare from the age of one (as well as end-of-life care). On top of this, the Government’s central policy idea, to level up the country, imagines a level of government intervention and redistribution on a scale previously deemed impossible, while the commitment to reach Net Zero by 2050 demands an even more transformative role for the state. All of this is happening, meanwhile, while the rest of the Western world begins the process of “de-risking” its supply chains from China, creating new manufacturing capacity outside of Beijing’s control largely by erecting new protective barriers. Not a single part of this economic landscape sits easily for a Conservative government led by a Thatcherite prime minister ostensibly committed to free trade, low taxes and a small state.

No party has ever won an election after presiding over a financial crisis — and the Conservatives actually caused this one. Wilson lost power after failing to stop the devaluation of sterling in 1967, Edward Heath after the oil crisis of 1973, James Callaghan after going to the IMF in 1976, John Major after Black Wednesday in 1992 and Gordon Brown after the great financial crash of 2008.

And yet, there is a socking great caveat to this rosy picture for Labour. Brexit.

Brexit is the one legacy of recent Conservative rule which Labour is not remotely comfortable with, least of all Starmer himself — the former shadow Brexit secretary who advocated a second referendum. Labour opposed the Brexit revolution and, quietly, continues to think it stupid, although cannot say so publicly. There is no precedent for this in the Party’s post-war history. Attlee believed that much of the economy could be run “in peace as in war” as he said in 1945; Wilson thought Macmillan’s corporatism was right but amateurish; Blair that Thatcher’s reforms had produced a better economy but needed better redistribution and professional management of public services. None was uncomfortable with the new settlement, and none would have reversed it — not that they could.

The one time Labour won an election after inheriting constitutional reform it did not support was in 1974, after Edward Heath took Britain into the Common Market. Yet, even here, Wilson was no longer the Eurosceptic he once was. Indeed, he had applied to join the Common Market himself, in 1967, and been rejected. The big difference between then and now, however, lies in how Labour handled this problem. Unlike today, the party was badly divided — split between the traditional Eurosceptic left and the pro-European right. Today, there is near unanimity in the parliamentary party that Brexit was wrong and continues to be harmful. In 1974, Wilson offered voters a referendum to ratify Britain’s accession to the EEC. Today, Starmer has ruled out a rejoin referendum.

On Brexit, if anything, Starmer is following a traditional Conservative Party playbook, not a Labour one. The essential dilemma of conservatism, since 1834, has been how to respond to major constitutional change that Toryism has opposed. At what point does this sort of reform become something the Conservative Party should seek to conserve rather than overturn?

In his famous Tamworth Manifesto, effectively creating the modern Conservative Party, Robert Peel declared (wrongly as it turned out) that the Great Reform Act should be seen as the “final and irrevocable settlement of a great constitutional question — a settlement which no friend to the peace and welfare of this country would attempt to disturb, either by direct or by insidious means”. This is essentially Starmer’s position on Brexit today. He didn’t like it, but has accepted it. In so doing, he hopes to benefit, as Peel did in 1834, from being seen as a moderate national leader able to bridge old divides, while also being the person best suited to ending what Peel called the “perpetual vortex of agitation” of a great reform when its  radical supporters aren’t reined in. This is Labour’s essential pitch today: we accept Brexit but will not let its supporters agitate for endless new changes. Enough!  Historically, it is a popular stance.

Will it work this time? It worked for Peel and, eventually, for Disraeli after he reluctantly accepted free trade. It also worked for Churchill and Eden and Macmillan when they accepted Labour’s welfare state. Each reform was popular. Today, the big difference is that Brexit no longer is.

Tom McTague is UnHerd’s Political Editor. He is the author of Betting The House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.