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The Economist: Three (early) observations about Britain’s new government



The administration of Sir Keir Starmer—the first Labour government in 14 years—has begun. It has not sprung any huge policy surprises, but nor did we expect it to: few rabbits have popped out of hats during Sir Keir’s leadership of the Labour Party. (Recall that Labour’s manifesto, on which it won that effective working majority of 181, was simply a collation of policies it had already announced.) But the first few days of the Starmer administration have been revelatory nonetheless. Three brief observations follow.

First, this is an administration that feels it necessary to assert the power of its mandate. In fact, at the press conference Sir Keir held in Downing Street on Saturday morning he referred in his prepared remarks to his “mandate” seven times. This is the first government in two decades, he pointed out, to win a majority of seats in each of the three mainland nations: England, Wales and Scotland. The mandate emphasis might seem odd, given that the result of the election was decisive. But Labour won its titanic majority with just 34% of the vote. (My colleagues’ note on that is here.) And there is, in some quarters, a tendency still to treat the Conservatives as the natural party of government, even after their decisive rout.

Second, what’s evident from the early days is that Sir Keir wants to bring about a cultural shift, towards what he called in the campaign a “politics of service”. In his first days in office Sir Keir headed to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to meet the leaders of governments there. He met the mayors of England’s regional authorities in London this morning. There is praise for the civil service. The tone is humble, diligent and low key. Angela Rayner, the deputy prime minister and housing secretary, captured it well in a message to her new staff on Monday: “We will go back to basics. No more government by gimmick. No more stunts and spin. Our department should do what it says on the tin.” Sir Keir would love to calm down British political culture after the rollercoaster of the past decade; that will be only partly in his gift.

Third, there is an evident willingness to exploit the legislative tools the government already has rather than to seek fresh legislation for its own sake (as was the tendency under the Tories). We had sensed that this would be the case. As I wrote a few months ago, on how Sir Keir had ruthlessly refashioned the Labour Party: “He wants to do things by the book, but the book is also there to be used.” One facet of the British state is that it is both highly centralised, and grants broad powers to ministers. Rachel Reeves, the new chancellor, yesterday announced changes to the planning system that she hopes will encourage investment in green energy, factories, data centres and much else. Existing powers will be used to compel local governments to increase housing supply; planning rules will be rewritten to give more consideration to economic benefits of schemes; onshore wind farms will be permitted again; and ministers will intervene to give approval to high-value projects, including reappraising two proposed data centres that were recently turned down. On this performance, a more humble government perhaps—but not a timid one.


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