How to interpret Labour’s big UK victory

Opinion: The Labour Party’s historic seizure of power in the UK is a defining moment, writes Professor John Morgan, that will require a new economic model.

Downing Street SW1 Sign

Fourteen years of Conservative government has formally ended. The Labour Party, led by Keir Starmer, has achieved a ‘landslide’ for only the third time in its one-hundred-year history.

General elections are significant moments in the life of nations. They are points where we can, if we are lucky, stand back and see where we have been, are now, and might be going. I vividly recall sitting in an English lesson when I was 13 and the teacher making us watch Margaret Thatcher’s visit to the Queen and return to Downing Street. She delivered the famous lines from St Francis of Assisi (the one about bringing hope where there is despair); our teacher said, ‘Wait and see, this will make our country great again’.

I can also recall the feeling of travelling to work on the London Underground the morning after Tony Blair’s victory in 1997 – strangers smiling at each other and politely asking, ‘Were you still up for Portillo?’ Things could only get better. That was inevitably followed by Labour’s defeat in 2010, when a divided nation returned a coalition government for only the second time in history.

These are defining moments, and we tie our personal life narratives to them.

In the BBC’s election night coverage (yes, it has to be the BBC), the sentiment was clear that this election is historic because it has ‘redrawn the map of British politics’. 

But what does that even mean? The cultural theorist Stuart Hall once wrote that political time is short, economic time has a longer durée and cultural change is even slower, more glacial. When it comes to elections, all these times converge, and figuring out how to interpret the map is not easy.

Coming back to the 13-year-old me in 1979. In Anthony Cartwright’s novel How I Killed Margaret Thatcher, the plot turns on a rumour that the young boy’s uncle had voted Conservative at the general election.

This was set in Dudley, in the English West Midlands, a place at the centre of the Industrial Revolution, but then turning into the type of place we might now designate as a LBP (Left Behind Place). My family had a similar rumour, causing some tense conversations of which I was dimly aware. A good deal of today’s general election bears traces of that election and what has happened since.

Britain’s flawed capitalism has two iron laws: first, houses prices must rise, and second, wealth must not be redistributed. The second historical shift is the rise of platform capitalism. 

In my lifetime, UK elections have been framed by a wider narrative of ‘decline’. I grew up with the story that the 1945 election ushered in the welfare state, which would provide for ‘people like us’, from the cradle to the grave.

It wasn’t just a story but made manifest in daily life: in the National Health Service (free at the point of delivery), eye tests and National Health glasses, the council house my nan moved to when the temporary prefab threatened to fall over, the daily half pint of milk at primary school and the orange juice that allowed us to grow taller and stronger than our parents.

Yes, there were class divides (these were often bitter and provided the basis for much local and regional rivalry), but there was a sense of one nation. The economic shocks of the 1970s changed all that.

Margaret Thatcher was determined to break the mould, and when she died a lot of people celebrated. But in the long view, more crucial was the gradual shift to a market culture.

Britain in the 70s was just too stale and pale. British historian Andy Beckett captures the exact moment things changed in his study of the years 1979 to 1982,  Promised You a Miracle (after the song by Spandau Ballet) which represented the desire (yes, that is the word) to be something different, to aspire to be millionaires , hence the power of Only Fools and Horses’ Del Boy’s catch phrase, ‘He who dares wins’.

The power of that joke was that, despite the shiny ‘yuppie’ culture of 1980s Britain, ordinary working people didn’t generally win.

But new identities did seem possible. The return of economic growth, which meant rising incomes, the availability of credit, new openness towards Europe, a change in the look and feel of towns and cities, and opportunities for ‘foreign’ holidays.

The 1990s Euros (the one’s which ended with Gazza’s tears) gave a portend, Girl Power, and Brit-pop (Oasis’s Liam Gallagher told young people to vote for Tony Blair) seemed to suggest a nation ‘at ease with itself’.

And the political map changed. The pent-up frustrations caused by English domination were eased by Scottish and Welsh devolution, and the Good Friday agreement. The rise of English regional assemblies and mayors for cities seemed to offer modernisation.

British capitalism seemed more ‘open neck’ and relaxed. Wealth still drained from the north to the south-east, especially London, Europe’s richest region, but there were dynamic regional cultures, expressed through football and music. Time and time again, Britain topped the charts for being the most tolerant of racial difference of any country in Europe.

What happened? Two books, plucked from my shelves, give a clue. In 2007 journalists Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson surveyed what they called 'Fantasy Island’. The New Labour years were founded on private and public debt, imperial hubris (wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) and guzzling consumption. The editors of Feelbad Britain stated that solidarity, trust and citizenship had been eroded. In 2008, the bubble burst.

The rest, as they say, is history. Despite acting quickly to save the economy in the aftermath of the financial crash, Labour was punished at the polls in 2010, and George Osborne (remember him?) promised a decade of austerity. Events move faster and faster.

Then came David Cameron and his 2013 ‘ill-fated’ promise to hold a Referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union: the decision to ‘Leave’, explained by some as intended to give the liberal political classes a ‘bloody nose’.

If New Labour’s debt-fuelled regime had papered over the cracks through high levels of spending on welfare and education, the cracks reappeared, with food banks and closed libraries, longer wait times for care.

If filmmaker Ken Loach’s Spirit of 45 captured the hopes of ordinary people, his later film, I, Daniel Blake,  showed the absurdities of life on no benefits – a blue-collar worker with the misfortune to fall ill falls into poverty and frustration with a “computer says no” benefit state.

In an article in the London Review of Books, William Davies says that the years 2010 to 2024 will be recorded as 14 years of Conservative rule, but  that so much has happened that we cannot easily make sense of it: Boris Johnson, the Windrush scandal, Covid-19 and the incompetent and negligent response. Theresa May, Liz Truss, Rishi Sunak. No less than five prime ministers.

But Davies does pull himself together to remind us that the era has been shaped by two historical forces. The first is that these governments have ruled in a context of the post-global financial crash, and the UK’s response to that was austerity.

This has widened geographical and social divisions. Britain’s flawed capitalism has two iron laws: first, houses prices must rise, and second, wealth must not be redistributed. The second historical shift is the rise of platform capitalism.

We spend so much of our lives on screens and apps, with ‘news’ that is personalised and bespoke, that any sense of collective narrative about where we are going is impossible.

What to make of it all, sitting far away in Auckland? Several books, papers and reports suggest there’s a growing consensus that a new economic model is required.

The Resolution Foundation report – 'Ending Stagnation' – set out a case for raising productivity, investing in green jobs, raising wages and reforming the tax system. Others talk of the need to focus on the ‘everyday economy’, ensuring food security.

There is a renewed concern with tacking the problems of Left Behind Places. We can only wait to see how, and if , Keir Starmer and Labour tackle the serious issues facing the UK and its almost 68 million citizens.

Professor John Morgan is from the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Education and Social Work.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of Waipapa Taumata Rau University of Auckland.

This article was first published on Newsroom, How to interpret Labour’s big UK victory

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