News | Political Parties / Election Analyses - UK / Ireland - Democratic Socialism - Europe2024 The Risk of Failure

Labour’s election victory is all but certain. But will the party be able to wield power?



John McDonnell,

John McDonnell attends a demonstration outside the Home Office in London.
John McDonnell attends a demonstration outside the Home Office in London, 18 December 2023. Photo: IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

The outcome of the general election in the UK has already been determined before a vote has been cast.

John McDonnell has been a Member of Parliament for the Labour Party since 1997.

Rishi Sunak has repeatedly demonstrated that he is no political Lazarus and the question is not whether the Conservatives will lose the election but by how much – and how long they will take to recover, or whether their party will survive at all, especially as they are threatened from the Right by Nigel Farage’s Reform Party.

So, the focus of the UK political debate is on Labour’s strategy for entry into government and beyond.

The Britain Labour will inherit is barely recognizable from the country of only 20 years ago. No matter the high-blown rhetoric of Sunak and Hunt about the UK’s economic performance, our country has been brought to its knees over the last 14 years and people now know it.

These days we are classified by generations. I am one of those lucky baby boomers, who, although born in a slum, thanks to council housing, free education, and work and wages secured by trade union power, came to expect every year to be better than the last, and every generation to benefit from the foundations laid by the previous one.

Thatcher punctured that dream in the 1980s, but the return of Labour in 1997 until 2010 was getting us back on that road, largely thanks to the role played by Gordon Brown.

Tragically, over the last 14 years, we have endured Conservative governments populated by rich boys fleecing our economy to make themselves and their friends even richer. These Conservative governments have been led by a leader who was a congenital liar, another so lacking in self-awareness she couldn’t see how incompetent she was, and now another so wealthy as to be incapable of appreciating how most people live. All together, they have come perilously close to destroying the basic fabric of our society.

Labour party strategists have interpreted this to mean that things are so bad and successive Tory leaders have been so incompetent that people won’t believe any politician who says that they can solve these problems.

And unlike all other past political campaigns fought on at least one big idea, the big idea for this election campaign is to have no big ideas. Instead, Labour will slide into office on the strength of the popular loathing of the Tories.

 Conservative voters staying at home, and a general feeling in the air that it’s time for a change, mean that Labour’s strategy will almost certainly work.

Any opposition from the wealthy and the powerful has been neutralized by a tacit pact to reassure them that their wealth and power will remain intact.

These are the reasons that the “First Steps” launched by Keir Starmer were so limited.

His six policies were small steps generally in the right direction, but they are clearly not enough to transform a society wracked by grotesque levels of poverty, inequality, and insecurity, with its public services in meltdown and on the edge of a devastating global climate crisis.

Conservative voters staying at home, and a general feeling in the air that it’s time for a change, mean that Labour’s strategy will almost certainly work.

One policy promised for the first 100 days that is genuinely transformative is the New Deal for Workers, in that it does shift an element of power away from the powerful.

It threatens the party leadership’s tacit pact with the establishment. That is why there has been such an intense lobbying campaign both from elements within and lobbyists outside the party to water it down. Looking past the election, having rid themselves of the Tories, people are likely to be patient and not expect overnight fixes.

Therefore, the critical period for Labour in government will not be its first year or 18 months, but is likely to be late 2026.

By that time, the Labour government will need more than its small steps to demonstrate it is making serious headway in tackling the toxic agenda it inherited.

Unless by midterm Labour is showing that it has a programme capable of transforming our society, tackling the economic, social, and environmental crises we face, then the fear is the next Labour government could go the way of many social democratic administrations across Europe.

Look to Germany, where disillusionment amongst activists and disenchantment amongst the electorate have opened the door not just for the conservative right but for the far right and for opportunist demagogues emerging from the Left, jumping on anti-migrant and socially conservative bandwagons.

Laying the groundwork for a Labour mid-term programme to avoid this fate and building the alliances of social movements to promote it are the tasks for the progressive Left that could offer the hope lacking in so much of the current political discourse.

An earlier version of this article first appeared in the Guardian.