Labour Party Election Event Watch Event

Labour has won a landslide victory in the U.K., ending 14 years of Conservative rule marked by austerity, Brexit turmoil, the COVID-19 pandemic, and political instability. In just six years, the party has achieved a remarkable turnaround from its crushing defeat in the 2019 election.

Keir Starmer entered 10 Downing Street on Friday as the new Prime Minister with the largest majority of any party since 1832. However, Starmer’s Labour government faces a daunting set of challenges as numerous public services are on the verge of collapse and spending plans are unlikely to address the scale of Britain’s current crises.

Hospital performance is arguably at its worst in the National Health Service’s history: waiting times have reached record highs, and targets for elective care, emergency services, and cancer treatment have not been met since 2016. The NHS consistently fails to address the public’s most pressing concerns, and there is an urgent need for rapid improvements.

The economic situation is equally dire. The U.K. has experienced one of the slowest economic recoveries from the COVID-19 pandemic among major advanced economies, partly due to the country’s vulnerability to higher energy prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. The after-effects of Brexit continue to be felt, with the U.K.’s departure from the E.U. so far imposing additional costs for little economic benefit. Repeated failures by the central government have hampered efforts to boost economic growth. And there is a persistent but poorly understood problem with rising levels of inactivity among working-age adults. Despite a recent decline, these levels are still unlikely to return to pre-pandemic levels for at least another year.

The challenges facing the new government are complex and multifaceted. Some of these issues have been exacerbated by external factors, such as the pandemic or Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, many of these problems have been aggravated, or even caused, by persistent government mismanagement and an unwillingness to confront evident issues.

The state of the prison system is a prime example. The U.K. is just days away from a full-blown prison crisis. The new government will likely have to implement emergency measures, including more early releases to alleviate pressure. This state of emergency has been brewing for years. Successive justice secretaries and Prime Ministers have chosen to ignore the drivers of the crisis; some have even exacerbated them. Since 2010, budgets have been slashed and the supply of prison places has been inadequate, while prison sentences have been lengthened. The previous government’s own projections had indicated that prisons would face a severe capacity crisis without a radical change in course. However, such a change never materialized.

Despite the multitude of problems facing Starmer’s government, this is also a moment of opportunity. After years of short-termism and instability – some warranted, others not – a new Labour government, untainted by scandal and corruption, with a substantial majority in parliament should be well-positioned to make tough decisions, tackle long-standing issues, and bring fresh thinking to complex policy challenges.

Indeed, the incoming Starmer Labour government has built its campaign around long-term solutions. “Mission-driven” government – the idea of governing based on 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 recognizes that change must occur in partnership – working with other tiers of government, civil society, and industry – and Labour has already outlined initial steps towards achieving these missions.

Missions have been criticized for being vague. However, Labour has begun to outline both policy details and the government apparatus behind them. A series of “first steps” have been published, and there are a number of policy commitments already in place – such as doubling the number of NHS scanners – which provide an indication of early policy intentions. We also know more about how these missions will be organized within the 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 shift the Treasury’s focus towards growth and investment.

Starmer and his government must now use their first days, weeks, and months in office to make progress. Part of this will involve continuing to emphasize that missions are at the heart of the new government – one of the most critical roles of a Prime Minister is to encourage an unwavering focus on what matters most, and missions should feature prominently in his early speeches. Governance structures designed to incorporate external perspectives should be complemented by a broader cultural shift towards working beyond central government, and empowering the right individuals and institutions. Once again, Starmer can signal this himself – by prioritizing early calls to leaders of Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.

Perhaps most importantly, Labour should commit real money to these missions. Many have questioned whether Labour’s financial resources will be sufficient to match the ambition of these missions. Significant progress can be achieved by spending existing funds more effectively – for example, devoting more to health care prevention, or to capital investment in buildings and equipment. One of the major tests will be whether spending is successfully allocated to these 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 swiftly – and begin to deliver results. While these challenges would test any government, Starmer has the opportunity – and seemingly the resolve – to govern differently. This means ending policy instability that has hampered 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.