Keir Starmer's Daunting Challenge Ahead

Supporters react as Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party, delivers a victory speech during a Labour Party election night results watch event in London, UK, on Friday, July 5, 2024. Credit - Betty Laura Zapata—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Labour has won a landslide victory in the U.K. election, bringing a decisive end to 14 years of Conservative government marked by austerity, Brexit tumult, the COVID-19 pandemic, and political chaos with five Tory Prime Ministers in a mere six years.

Keir Starmer walked into 10 Downing Street on Friday as the new Prime Minister with the largest majority of any party since 1832. But while this electoral triumph is a remarkable turnaround for a party that saw its worst election results since the 1930s during the last contest in 2019, Starmer’s Labour government will take on a profoundly difficult in-tray with many public services at breaking point and spending plans unlikely to meet the scale of Britain’s current crises.

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Hospital performance is arguably the worst in the National Health Service’s history: waiting times have been the longest on record, and targets for elective care, emergency services, and cancer treatment have not been met since 2016. The NHS routinely tops the polls of issues the public are most concerned about, and they will be expecting fast improvements.

The economic situation is just as challenging. The U.K. has had one of the slowest recoveries from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic among major advanced economies, partly reflecting the country’s vulnerability to higher energy prices after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. The after-effects of Brexit continue to be felt, with the U.K.’s departure from the E.U. this far imposing extra costs for little economic benefit. Repeated central government failures have thwarted efforts to reduce regional inequality. And there is a persistent but poorly-understood problem with growing levels of economic inactivity among working age adults. After a prolonged crisis in living standards, these are still unlikely to return to pre-pandemic levels for at least a year.

It is an inheritance which is complex and challenging. Some of these challenges have been exacerbated by a difficult external context, such as the pandemic or Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Yet many of these problems have been exacerbated, or caused, by persistent short-termism in British politics and an unwillingness to grip problems that are evident.

The prisons crisis is a case in point. The U.K. is just days away from running out of cells. It is likely that the new government will have to grapple with emergency measures, including more early releases to ease pressure. This state of emergency has been brewing for years. Successive justice secretaries and Prime Ministers have chosen not to address the drivers of the crisis; some have added to them. Since 2010, budgets have been cut and supply of places under-delivered, while prison sentences have continued to grow. The prior government’s own projections have implied that prisons would suffer a severe capacity crisis without a sudden course change. That never came.

But for all the problems in the Starmer government’s in-tray, this is also a moment of opportunity. After years of short-termism and instability—some warranted and lots less so—a new Labour government, not scarred by scandal and internal division, and with a huge majority in parliament should be well placed to make difficult choices, tackle long-standing problems, and bring fresh thinking to complex policy challenges.

Indeed, the incoming Starmer Labour government has built its pitch around the long-term. “Mission-driven” government—the idea of governing around a series of ambitious and long-term goals on the NHS, clean energy, growth, safer streets, and breaking down barriers to opportunity—is at the heart of this new government’s plans. This approach acknowledges that change must happen in partnership—working with other tiers of government, civil society, and industry—and Labour has already set out initial steps toward their missions.

Missions have been criticized for being vague. But in fact Labour has started to sketch out both policy detail and the apparatus of government behind them. A series of “first steps” have been published and there are a host of policy commitments already on the books—like doubling the number of NHS scanners—which give an indication of early policy intentions. We also know more of how these missions will be organized in government: an overarching committee, chaired by Starmer, with roles for Deputy Prime Minister Angela Rayner and other senior Labour officials; mission boards, with Starmer again in the chair; roles for experienced outsiders to share their expertise; and a plan to focus the Treasury more toward growth and investment.

Starmer and his government must now use their first days, weeks, and months in office to push forward. Part of this will be continuing to signal missions are at the heart of the new government—one of the most crucial roles of a Prime Minister is encouraging a relentless focus on what matters most and missions should feature in his early speeches. Governance structures intended to bring in outside voices should be complemented with a broader culture change toward working beyond central government, and putting power in the right places. Again, Starmer can signal this himself—prioritizing early calls to leaders of Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.

Perhaps most importantly, Labour should commit real money to missions. Many have asked whether Labour’s spending plans will be able to match the ambition of missions. Much can be achieved by spending existing money more effectively—for instance, devoting more to prevention on health care, or to capital investment in buildings and equipment. One of the big tests will be whether spending is successfully allocated to missions in Labour’s first multi-year spending review, likely in 2025.

The inheritance facing this government is daunting, and the new Prime Minister will need to act quickly—and start to show results. But while these problems would challenge any government, Starmer has the opportunity—and seemingly the resolve—to govern differently. This means ending policy instability that has stymied relations with industry; reforming public services; rebuilding ministerial relations with the civil service; working beyond Whitehall; and, perhaps most importantly, bringing a sense of ambition to what government can help achieve.

None of this is easy. But, for the first time in a long while, it feels possible.

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