We present a new release of the galform semi-analytical model of galaxy formation and evolution, which exploits a Millennium Simulation-class N-body run performed with the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe 7 cosmology. We use this new model to study the impact of the choice of stellar population synthesis (SPS) model on the predicted evolution of the galaxy luminosity function. The semi-analytical model is run using seven different SPS models. In each case, we obtain the rest-frame luminosity function in the far-ultraviolet, optical and near-infrared (NIR) wavelength ranges. We find that both the predicted rest-frame ultraviolet and optical luminosity function are insensitive to the choice of SPS model. However, we find that the predicted evolution of the rest-frame NIR luminosity function depends strongly on the treatment of the thermally pulsating asymptotic giant branch (TP-AGB) stellar phase in the SPS models, with differences larger than a factor of 2 for model galaxies brighter than MAB(K) − 5 log h < −22 (∼L* for 0 ≤ z ≤ 1.5). We have also explored the predicted number counts of galaxies, finding remarkable agreement between the results with different choices of SPS model, except when selecting galaxies with very red optical–NIR colours. The predicted number counts of these extremely red galaxies appear to be more affected by the treatment of star formation in discs than by the treatment of TP-AGB stars in the SPS models.