UK Election 2024

Labour has won. So what now for the left?

On Palestine, policing, LGBTQI+ rights and racism, groups alienated by the Tories had built an unofficial coalition. But holding Keir Starmer’s government to account is a different game altogether

Artwork by Hyphen/Photos by Christopher Furlong/Alishia Abodunde/Getty Images/TransKidsDeserveBetter
Labour has won the election, but will the change in government actually signify a progressive shift for Britain? Artwork by Hyphen. Photos by Christopher Furlong/Alishia Abodunde/Getty Images/TransKidsDeserveBetter

The Labour Party has done it: secured a huge majority and reduced the Tories to their lowest share of parliamentary seats in more than a century. For some, the news this morning was cause for celebration — the hope of better things to come after 14 years of Conservative rule. But for others on the left, a Labour government presents an entirely new challenge.

Activists and campaigners told Hyphen that Keir Starmer’s historic step into Number 10 would not guarantee a progressive shift for Britain. In recent months, Labour’s withdrawal of support for the Muslim socialist candidate for Chingford and Woodford Green, Faiza Shaheen, and Starmer’s treatment of the party’s longest-standing Black MP, Diane Abbott, in combination with the open welcome of controversial Tory defectors, have added to misgivings about the party’s record on Islamophobia and LGBTQI+ rights.

Then, of course, there is its long silence on the need for a ceasefire in Gaza; allegations of a “hierarchy of racism” under its current leadership; accusations of flip-flopping on green policy; and its troubled relationship with activism. Labour and Starmer have backed the government’s “spy cops” bill, banned MPs from joining picket lines and suggested that peaceful climate campaigners should be prosecuted.

Immigration campaigners are particularly cautious about working under a Labour government that — while in opposition — trod a thin line between the protection of borders and criticism of the last government’s destruction of the asylum system.

“We’re a relatively young sector, so there isn’t a huge amount of experience of how to work effectively with a government that may be willing to listen,” says Zoe Gardner, an independent immigration policy expert and campaigner. “There’s an attempt to build up some capacity now to understand how Westminster works and develop strategies for engaging with the new government.”

Labour has pledged to ditch the Conservatives’ plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, which was deemed a violation of international law that could endanger refugees’ lives  — at huge financial cost. But campaigners fear the party will feel bounced by the rise of Reform UK, and pressure from the right-wing press, into taking a more populist right-wing approach to immigration, reinforcing xenophobic narratives.

“We need to centre humanity and people, not division and hate,” said Ravishaan Rahel Muthiah, communications chief at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants. “We have seen the solidarity people are capable of through the Ukraine scheme, which has seen more than 230,000 people welcomed into our communities.”

Hope is perhaps stronger when it comes to improvements behind the scenes to the asylum system. “Working with parliamentarians on constructing legal frameworks that work better, and the small practicalities — there’s hope that we might have a government that’s more likely to respond to evidence and act on the basis of evidence in terms of legislation,” said Gardner.

One source who has recently been in talks with shadow cabinet figures on the issue of immigration agrees that there is wriggle room for progress to be made. “The leadership isn’t going to do massive or ambitious things to reform and humanise borders,” they admitted. “But after years of rhetoric and failure, the best way to interpret the mandate here is to see it as a vote from people who are fed up and want government to just do something and get it right.

“There’s a backlog in the asylum system and a very pointless and expensive hotel system for arrivals. You could imagine the Home Office saying ‘we are going to clear this in a year’ and then setting about building proper accommodation at a fraction of the cost, keeping it all within the fiscal rules and solving the problem.”

They reasoned: “Most people actually aren’t hostile to arrivals. They are just angry with the chaos. So they will see that as a real solution. And even though the leadership might not be ambitious, they are going to actually want to solve these problems — and that’s a marked difference from recent years when the governing party has actually rooted for the problem to get worse because it’s politically expedient to have a group they can demonise.”

In other organising spaces, however, such as the Palestine campaigns, hope is being replaced with despair as Labour remains steadfast in its support of Israel. A quarter of Labour MPs have taken cash from pro-Israel groups, according to a recent investigation by Declassified UK, further fuelling disillusionment among activists.

“Most people I organise with have voted independently,” said one pro-Palestine activist, Sara, from London. “People have lost trust completely and see that the two-party system is not working for them.”

Labour lost to pro-Palestine independents in five seats overnight, all of them in areas with high Muslim populations, and gave Starmer’s party a closer race than expected in several others. Exclusive polling for Hyphen ahead of the election found that the majority of people who ranked Gaza as a top-five electoral issue were open to voting independent.

But none of the groups Sara is involved with plans to slow down its protests. The new government, she says, should brace itself for sustained, if not intensified, pro-Palestine action — particularly if the situation deteriorates further. A march is planned in central London for 6 July.

All the same, campaigners face a challenge in mobilising people to pressure a government that some believe is on their side — while right-wing leaders wait in the wings, capitalising on discontent. “I think there’s also a worry that when some groups see opportunities to work with Labour on some areas, they may need to compromise in other areas,” said Gardner. Under the Tories, campaigners united to strengthen numbers and support across issues — notably in organising against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, the Rwanda policy or for Palestinian rights. Now, this coalition may begin to splinter.

Housing is another area where some feel a change in government will not be enough to achieve sufficient change. Labour has pledged to abolish no-fault evictions and extend Awaab’s Law to privately rented homes — but renters’ union Acorn says the party’s plans do not go far enough.

The group’s policy officer Anny Cullum told Hyphen: “They haven’t touched on the wider rent control measures needed to get a grip on runaway rents that are driving people out of their communities and away from work, family and friends.”

So what next for groups like Acorn, formed in Bristol a decade ago against a backdrop of Tory-led austerity policies? It’s business as usual, says Cullum: “Members will continue to use collective, direct action to fight and win for our communities.”

After 14 years of the Conservatives, activists across the board have grown used to campaigning under a purely hostile government. But for some, Labour is a more complex target.

The party’s manifesto included a goal to lift the ban on onshore wind, create a publicly owned energy company and achieve “clean power by 2030”, setting the party apart from the Conservatives’ call for “an affordable and pragmatic transition to net zero”. Individual campaigns to halt fossil fuel expansion may prove easier under a government recognising the need for a green transition, believes Katie*, who has spent more than a decade as an activist and is a climate organiser in the north-east of England.

But Starmer’s reaction to Just Stop Oil’s recent stunt at Stonehenge, in which the group threw orange cornflour on the stones, worries campaigners. “I’m concerned about how the Labour leadership talks about climate activists and wants to criminalise us,” another climate activist in Brighton told Hyphen. “We’ve done all the peaceful protests and signed all the petitions. What else is there to do to get the government to act?”

Could a quiet alliance be built between the party’s factions, backbench MPs, and climate activist groups? “I haven’t seen any of that within the climate justice groups I’m a part of, but that’s not to say this isn’t happening in other circles,” said Katie.

“When Corbyn was the opposition leader, there was a real belief that they [activists] would be able to influence state policy. But I think since then, of the groups that I know, very few think they are going to change what they’re doing when Starmer’s Labour is in power.”

As well as Starmer’s well-documented flooding of party ranks with corporate lobbyists, Katie believes Labour’s more left-wing politicians fear ejection from the party if they step too far out of line, making it difficult to build good relationships between activists and the party. “Even Labour for a Green New Deal wouldn’t take meetings with [my climate group] three years ago,” she said.

Labour has sent mixed messages on trans rights, and some activists see this as an intentional ploy to cast a wide net for votes. Pre-election, for instance, the party proposed to simplify the process of changing legal gender and ban conversion therapy. Yet its commitment to implement the recommendations of the contested Cass Report is seen as a contradiction by groups such as the Trans Safety Network. The organisation has little hope that things will change now Labour is in power. In the days before the election, a string of interventions by Starmer appearing to court so-called “gender-critical” views only deepened alarm from some quarters.

“We are also concerned that their plans to expand hate crime sentencing do little to address the source of hateful radicalisation against trans people,” said a spokesperson for the group, “while Labour continues to protect anti-trans MPs from criticism, and collude in anti-trans rhetoric around healthcare access and single-sex spaces.”

Some on the left still hold out hope that Labour’s centrist pre-election messaging was really a Trojan horse for progressive policies. But with the far right on the rise in Europe and Farage’s Reform UK gaining more than four million votes, others are bracing for a reality in which Labour either fails to tackle right-wing stances or continues to adopt them to fend off the opposition.

*Names have been changed.

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