YouGov recently asked voters which party had achieved most after 13 years in office. Labour (1997-2010) led comfortably at 41%, compared to Conservatives (2010-2023) on 21%. “Don’t know” scored 38% (but remember that nobody under 30 was old enough to vote when Labour was last in power).
While approval of Labour’s record was highest among Labour and Lib/Dem supporters, fewer than half of Conservative supporters chose Conservative, and among those who voted for Brexit, those choosing Conservative (34%) were outnumbered by “don’t know” (40%).
Both Labour and Conservative parties and their supporters have produced lists of achievements. Some are contested, and many make very selective use of data to support their claims. Conservative claims often treat the rule of a particular prime minister as if it was a different government, as new prime ministers have repudiated the policies of their predecessors. The Full Fact service has provided independent analysis of some of the claims.
The two governments came to power in very different environments. In 1997 Labour inherited a growing economy, while in 2010 the Conservatives faced the results of a global economic crisis.
Both governments will be remembered for a few major achievements. Labour’s Good Friday Agreement put an end to more than 30 years of near civil war in Northern Ireland. The Conservatives secured the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union.
Labour used the resources generated by economic growth to fund many policies, but they also raised public expenditure, from 35% of GDP to 45%. GDP per head rose by 18% and real average earnings rose by 13.5%. But their introduction of private finance initiative to pay for major capital projects proved contentious.
By contrast, the Conservatives arrived in the wake of the 2008 global economic crash. Their austerity policies, aiming to reduce the nation’s debt, produced major cuts to almost all areas of public spending, which fell from 45% to 42% of GDP. The rate of growth of GDP halved to 10%, and real average earnings have actually fallen, by 4.4%.
Labour increased spending on the NHS. They introduced performance targets, and hospital waiting lists fell by a million. Numbers of doctors and nurses rose, and the number of patients per GP was reduced by 19%.
The Conservatives undertook a major reorganisation of the NHS, which has led to a larger role for the private sector. Staff numbers fell, and are now being raised again. Between 2010 and the eve of Covid, hospital waiting lists rose from 2.5 million to 4.5 million.
Eliminating poverty and inequality was a major theme of the Labour government. They created the national minimum wage, and one million pensioners and 600,000 children were taken out of poverty.
The Conservatives introduced universal credit, to simplify a complex welfare system. This took longer than anticipated and produced a dramatic rise in homelessness and foodbank use. Conservative claims have focused on ‘levelling up’ regional inequalities, but with only modest evidence of change.
Labour’s Human Rights Act incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law, giving extensive protection to all citizens. They also created the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and the Supreme Court.
Conservatives have complained about the Convention, but they have not sought to withdraw from it. Other legislation, including voter ID and on the right to protest, have effectively curtailed some rights.
Immigration remains a contentious issue. As the UK’s native population ages, the economy needs more working age people, but high levels of immigration create social pressures on housing and public services.
When the EU added 12 new member states, Labour chose to open its borders to the new countries immediately. The resulting surge of immigration was much larger than expected. Although its economic impact was positive, the pressures on housing and public services caused political alarm.
In contrast, the Conservatives promised to reduce net immigration to tens of thousands. However, despite Brexit and increasingly punitive policies, this has never been achieved. Immigration continues to rise, and the latest net total is the highest ever, at 606,000. The Home Office has also failed to keep up with the backlog of asylum claims (most of which are eventually accepted).
In education, Labour doubled funding per school pupil, and introduced the educational maintenance allowance to help 16–18 year olds remain in education and training. They created 2,200 Sure Start centres to support parents and address educational disadvantage. They recruited 42,000 more teachers. To fund an expansion of higher education, they introduced student fees, initially at £1,000 a year, but then raised them to £3,000. They created academies to remove failing schools from local authority control.
The Conservatives expanded free schools, and effectively privatised schools by changing academy status from a rescue tool for failing schools into the norm. They also trebled student fees, from £3,000 to £9,000, and the average student now graduates with a debt of over £45,000.
Both parties claim to be in favour of positive environmental policies. Labour’s Climate Change Act created a binding target for emissions by 2050.
The Conservatives have retained that target, and have supported a patchwork of initiatives to improve energy efficiency. However, they have also approved opening a new coal mine, and encouraged further oil and gas exploration in the North Sea.
Government and devolution
Both parties have argued for greater devolution of powers from Whitehall. Labour handed power over many areas of policy to new assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. They began the process of devolving power to directly elected mayors.
The Conservatives have argued for ‘levelling up’ the regions, and have overseen further devolution. However, the pattern is very uneven across the country, and has proved contentious in many areas. Austerity policies have caused a 56% cut in funding to local authorities, and this has combined with increased central direction of local services, to actually reduce, rather than increase local control.
Labour played a very active, but contentious, role on the international stage. On the positive side, they conducted successful military campaigns to bring relative peace to Kosovo and Sierra Leone. They also wrote off the UK debt of the world’s poorest countries. However, following 9/11, they followed the USA into very unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for which many have still not forgiven them.
Internationally, the Conservatives have focused on disentangling the UK from the EU, and building new trading arrangements beyond Europe. Most recently their main focus has been on support for Ukraine in its war against Russia.
In their 13 year terms, both parties have had successes and failures. Both faced challenges not anticipated when they came to power. What people remember of them, especially of the Labour government of 1997-2010 will be patchy and partial, and the parties will probably be keen to keep it that way.
How the voters will judge them remains to be seen.