Labour Promises Reforms In UK

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This year is euphemistically known as the year of elections. From Bangladesh to Mexico, India, Indonesia to the US, democratic elections are on cards. In the elections held in the United Kingdom (UK) on July 4, Labour Party romped to victory, winning power for the first time after losing out to the Conservatives in 2010. After fourteen years of an uninterrupted Conservative party rule,  Labour’s landslide victory in UK reintroduces an era of left of center politics in contradistinction to the surge of far right politics in the polls for European Parliament as well as  France. Labour’s win has several repercussions in the UK domestic politics.  

In its manifesto, Labour committed to reset the relationship between Westminster and the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The manifesto also had outlined a new Council of the Nations and Regions, which would include the prime minister, leaders of the devolved national governments, and mayors of major regions across the United Kingdom. This power-sharing paradigm is a departure from Westminster’s strict hold over the regions. This is reminiscent of the premiership of Tony Blair who had reversed some of the measures introduced by strong conservative leader Margaret Thatcher to democratise political institutions who had held sway in the UK politics for over a decade. 

Uphill battle

The major area which Labour promises to improve is the domain of democratic representation. Labour outlines significant reforms — and the eventual replacement — of the unelected House of Lords, as well as stricter rules around the conduct of ministers and members of parliament. Its manifesto, according to reports, also includes lowering the voting age to sixteen in all elections and fixes to uneven voter identification requirements. This expansion of representation is a welcome change, and the United Kingdom could emerge as a leader in this regard if Labour manages to implement this agenda. 

However, the new government has an uphill battle to fight after the last several years of mess. Its biggest challenge will be to maintain its will and focus amid both local and global crises. Only by solving immediate cost-of-living and economic concerns, Labour can rebuild trust with electorate and then tackle the major changes the party has campaigned on. According to Nicole Lawler, an Atlantic Council expert on European affairs, Labour’s victory sends a clear signal to the European Union (EU).  United Kingdom is willing to improve its relationship with Europe. How far relations between the two partners develop will depend on the Labour government’s ambitions and what the EU is willing (or unwilling) to accept when it comes to trade. While Labour has expressed its intentions to restore relations with Europe after eight years of strained ties resulting from Brexit, it has not been very specific about its goals

Nonetheless, Labour has campaigned as the pro-business choice for Britain and will likely seek to remove remaining trade barriers with Europe for the benefit of Britain’s small and medium-sized enterprises. The EU, however, is unlikely to accept these terms if it means the United Kingdom will cherry pick access to its single market. This poses a problem for Labour’s intentions to revisit the Brexit deal, which Starmer in the past has referred to as botched. With little interest to renegotiate a Brexit trade deal, the EU won’t accept any new deal without receiving some concessions. As argued by Nicole Lawler, EU likely will push on the free movement of people as a quid pro quo. It will be important for the Labour government to strike the right balance in its trade relationship with the EU, which remains the United Kingdom’s largest trading partner. Labour at minimum has agreed to negotiate veterinary agreement with the EU to avoid extra checks on animal products, which could be beneficial for both parties.

According to Philip Dickens, an Atlantic Council expert who served on the political team at the British Embassy in Washington, increase in defense spending is central to Starmer’s political project. When he became Labour Party leader in 2020, Starmer took over a party that had just suffered its worst electoral defeat since 1935 under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, a figure from the party’s pre-Tony Blair left. Restoring Labour’s credibility on national security and defense was an early priority for Starmer. He firmly declared Labour’s support for NATO pointing out that Labour Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin was one of the Alliance’s founding fathers in 1949 and re-committed to the United Kingdom’s nuclear deterrence.

Lofty goals

Livia Godaert, a European political analyst holds the view that Starmer is not a particularly radical Labour leader. Nevertheless, the party has laid out a big vision for Britain’s economic future: setting up Great British Energy (a publically owned clean energy company), renationalising the railways, and implementing a new industrial strategy to name a few major policies. These are lofty goals, but not impossible to achieve with the mandate that Labour has received. The previous government got caught up in its own machinations, leaving it directionless, and the Labour government must maintain its discipline to achieve its ambitions.

As articulated by Labour in its poll manifesto, there won’t be major shifts in foreign policy and security realms. The UK will still be an active NATO member, and it will push to raise defense spending to 2.5 per cent of gross domestic product as the Conservatives had also pledged. However, Labour has made clear that a closer relationship with the EU is a priority. Another key difference with the Conservatives is that in its manifesto Labour commits to pushing for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, with unimpeded aid access to Gaza and recognition of a Palestinian state as part of a two-state solution and future. It is to be seen how the Labour government navigates its way though the thickets of problems and challenges. 

(The author is presently associated with Policy Research Institute (PRI) as a senior research fellow.  rijalmukti@gmail.com)

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