Sir Keir Starmer's leadership has shown relatively little interest in Labour's past. This is entirely understandable. Nostalgia can be a dangerous thing and successful parties need to grapple with the problems of the present moment (climate change, the Ukraine crisis, the possibilities of artificial intelligence). The Labour leaders who have been most aware of the party's history (Foot, Kinnock) have been the least successful. Nevertheless, there are things to learn from the past to help guide the future. Labour needs to be clearer about its successes and to dispute claims about its record made by its detractors.

What is striking about the comments in the survey is that historians do not betray signs of romanticism. There is an argument here that Labour needs to be clear and honest about its past. Where Labour has run into problems in government these need to be looked at and explained. The things that a previous government is now known for were not always the priorities of politicians at the time (Harold Wilson, for example, was distinctly wary about some liberal reforms which are now seen as his enduring legacy).

Looking at the historical record, it is clear that Labour will always have to work harder than the Tories to demonstrate its economic competence. Labour has worked best when it acknowledged economic and international constraints and worked to find progressive solutions. The party's comfort zone can usually be found in its social and moral reforms where it has created the common sense of today (for example, preparing the way for the Conservative adoption of gay marriage). It still struggles with the question of how to do social democracy when there is no money (a recurrent problem since 2008). The benign context on which Blair and Brown worked in the 1990s is a distant memory.

It was significant that few historians suggested that Labour was no different from the Conservatives (except perhaps over foreign policy). There was a feeling that Labour governments always have a sense of their social and moral purpose. Few historians talked much about redistribution although this was implicit in the exploration about equality. Labour, it emerges, has been also perhaps been more effective in attacking the causes of poverty than reducing inequality although its record, as Pat Thane says, is strong. Labour needs to respect aspiration but accept this is no replacement for focussing on the least well off. Massive investment in infrastructure (transport, education, artificial intelligence, the quality of town centres, policing) of all kinds will be required but they are not going to be cheap.

The party of 2024 has learned from Labour history that it is better to under promise and over deliver. In contrast to previous Labour plans to transform society (the 2019 manifesto), the party now prefers to settle for small victories. Some of the soaring Labour rhetoric of the past is absent in the party's presentation: it now seems more comfortable with the Union Jack than the red flag. Starmer talks both about 'change' and a 'changed Labour party'. He may find he has more in common with the six men who have been Labour Prime Ministers in the past.

Rachel Reeves and Keir Starmer in the Cabinet Office

Image: Rachel Reeves Chancellor.jpg (cropped). Original image by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street, available on Wikimedia Commons under Open Government Licence v3.0.