How Should Labour Govern? - Historians respond.

A Survey by the Labour History Research Unit, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge

Keir Starmer in the Cabinet Office

Image: Prime Minister Sir Keir Starmer Official Portrait.jpg (cropped). Original image by Prime Minister's Office, available on Wikimedia Commons under Open Government Licence v3.0.

On 4 July 2024 Sir Keir Starmer's Labour Party was elected with a large majority in the House of Commons. A new generation of MPs has entered Parliament which is likely to shape Britain over the next two decades or more. Tony Blair has written 'The hardest part of coming into government is recognising that the skill set that brought you to government is not the same as the skill set you need to stay there' (Sunday Times, 7 July 2024). Can the history of the Labour Party help us think about the challenges Starmer will face in government?

This is a brief report of a survey that the Labour History Research Unit (LHRU) at Anglia Ruskin University conducted with historians of the Labour Party and modern Britain. Most were based in History or in Politics departments. They were selected because of their research and understanding of Labour at various points in its history. We are hugely grateful to them for giving up their time to fill in the survey. The results came in during the two weeks running up to the General Election with a final deadline of 5 July 2024.

This survey complements the new report 'How Labour Governs' that the LHRU has drawn up employing Labour history to provide some reflections for the Starmer government on what makes a successful Labour administration. For this survey we asked five questions with tickboxes and then a number of further questions where historians were invited to write more reflective answers. Colleagues were asked to employ an historical perspective rather than simply articulate a political view (although we acknowledged that this is a difficult thing to do). We were, however, very struck by the serious insights of colleagues to the questions and we share some of them below.

34 colleagues responded to the survey. They varied in age (we particularly wanted some younger scholars) but all have expertise in various aspects of Labour's history. In the report that follows the numbers do not always add up to 34 as a number did not answer every question. They are separated into Tickbox answers (designed to elicit some raw data) and Freetext answers (where some of the tickbox questions were repeated so that historians could explain and develop their answers). A number of colleagues contributed but did not wish to be identified. Where a colleague has been identified, they ticked the box in the survey which stated they did not mind being directly quoted. The comments are woven together by Rohan McWilliam of the LHRU.

Glen O'Hara (Oxford Brookes and author of a forthcoming study of New Labour) observes: 'Labour as a party is absolutely obsessed with its own past. Although this can be a hindrance in reaching out to the wider electorate, it can also be a strength, and historians could have a vital role to play here'. What follows is an attempt to draw on some of this expertise.

1. Tickbox questions

2. Further Questions in the Freetext section. Colleagues were encouraged to give more than yes/no answers, producing qualitative rather quantitative data.

3. Conclusion


We would love to receive your own feedback on our 'How Should Labour Govern?' survey. Please email any comments to [email protected].