Britain is about to elect a Labour government with a significant majority in July 2024. How should it govern?

This report, issued by the Labour History Research Unit (LHRU) at Anglia Ruskin University, argues that an understanding of the history both of Labour governments and of modern Britain can offer some ideas about how Labour should proceed as it takes power. We do not believe that history offers simple lessons. This would reduce Labour to the level of the generals always fighting the last war. Nor do we believe that history helps predict the future. Nevertheless, we can think with history to understand the challenges of today. Labour’s past has generated an impressive body of scholarship from David Marquand and Ben Pimlott to Richard Toye and Daisy Payling which we need to employ to think about the future. If nothing else, history can tell us what is distinctive about the present moment and help view it in perspective.

The LHRU held a conference in January 2024 titled ‘How Labour Governs’ which has partly inspired this report although none of the participants in that event is responsible for its contents.i The quality of the papers and the discussion revealed how historians can contribute to the discussion.

This report builds on the research, interests and political activism of members of the LHRU. We consider domestic policy, foreign policy and the special case of Labour’s relationship with Ireland. We do not claim to deal with all questions that will face a Stramer government but is merely intended to sketch out some key points. ‘How Labour Governs’ is a sequel to the ’Labour Renewal Project’ which we issued in 2020.ii In retrospect, that report was about trying to make Labour an effective opposition. This new report is specifically about government. The mission of the LHRU is to engage with the question: how do we do progressive politics better?

Here are some answers to the question.

Like all political parties Labour has myths that define it. These include the idea of the forward march of Labour transforming society, the spirit of 1945, the claims that leaders from Ramsay MacDonald onwards have betrayed the party’s supporters. Historians can look critically at some of these myths and suggest other ways of thinking about what the Labour Party is – and has been. They also continually rethink the way we see the past.iii The reputation of the Attlee government, for example, has evolved since the period after its end when it was regarded as timid; by contrast today, it is regarded as a transformative force.iv Similarly, Harold Wilson left power in 1976 reviled as a mediocrity but is now viewed as a major architect of modern Britain.v Historians also show that what Labour has stood for has changed over the last hundred years. What follows is not an exercise in self-congratulation: Labour has sometimes failed in governing effectively but even this failure can be instructive.

These are challenging times. It is the duty of the Labour Party to repair the public realm and the fabric of society which (even some Conservatives admit) has been undermined since 2010. An incoming Labour government will have to deal with challenges that are in some respects peculiar to the present moment. These include climate change, an aging population, Brexit, the emergence of China as a global superpower, re-invigorated right-wing populism, and the rise of Artificial Intelligence. Even here historians have reflected on the ways in which Labour managed in the past to meet new challenges from Attlee’s rebuilding of the economy through to Wilson and Blair’s attempts at modernisation.

Ideas and a sense of principle do matter. It is significant that historians have reappraised some of the great Labour leaders and shown how they were not simply pragmatic but thought deeply about the relationship between politics and the state. John Bew showed how Attlee, beneath his managerial veneer, had a philosophical basis to his actions whilst David Edgerton has reappraised Harold Wilson as a stronger political thinker than his reputation suggests (see below).vi New Labour arose from extensive analysis of the role of social democracy in the 1990s. Starmer’s Labour, it should be noted. lacks this philosophical base. There is no obvious equivalent of Tony Crosland or Anthony Giddens.vii

The immediate context of this report is an election in which Labour has deliberately offered little detail as to how it will govern. As Karl Pike argues, Labour has a leader ‘still making up his mind’.viii The best we can hope at the moment is that Labour is following a strategy of ‘under-promise and over-deliver’. Labour’s 2024 manifesto and current caution remains the product of the period up to the Liz Truss government where it looked as if Labour would struggle to get a majority even of just one. If Labour achieves a landslide result on 4 July then it will have a responsibility to be far bolder and ambitious, using that majority to embark on progressive reform. The records of the Attlee, Wilson/Callaghan and Blair/Brown governments are instructive. Historians can offer some direction. Labour is cautious because of the precarious state of the public finances, but, in the words of Rahm Emmanuel (at the time chief of staff to Barack Obama), ‘Never let a serious crisis go to waste’.

Keir Starmer speaking at the Labour leadership election hustings

Image: Keir Starmer, 2020 Labour Party leadership election hustings, Bristol 4.jpg (cropped). Original image by Rwendland, available on Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.



i Our thanks go to the contributors in the How Labour Governs conference: Charles Clarke, Frederick Cowell, Pamela Cox, Patrick Diamond, David Edgerton, Lyndsey Jenkins, Richard Johnson, Colm Murphy, Glen O’Hara, Jonathan Portes, Adrian Smith, Jim Tomlinson, David Torrance and Richard Toye.

ii The Labour Renewal Project – LHRU website. (accessed 17 June 2024).

iii Nathan Yeowell (eds.), Rethinking Labour’s Past (London: I. B. Tauris, 2022).

iv For the critical view, see Ralph Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism: A Study in the Politics of Labour (London: Allen and Unwin, 1961); for a more positive reappraisal, see Richard Toye, Age of Hope: Labour, 1945, and the Birth of Modern Britain (London: Bloomsbury, 2023).

v Glen O’Hara, ‘The Fall and Rise of Harold Wilson’ in Nathan Yeowell (ed.), Rethinking Labour’s Past (London: I.B. Tauris, 222), pp. 75-93.

vi John Bew, Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee (London: Riverrun, 2016); David Edgerton, ‘Harold Wilson’s Lessons for Labour Renewal’, New Statesman, 13 April 2024: (accessed 18 June 2024).

vii Anthony Crosland, The Future of Socialism (London: Cape1956); Anthony Giddens, The Third Way: The renewal of social democracy (Cambridge: Polity, 1998).

viii Karl Pike, Getting over New Labour (Newcastle upon Tyne: Agenda Publishing, 2024), p. 12.