‘Time is running out for civil service access talks – and to finalise Labour’s policy priorities’

Cath Haddon
© Pres Panayotov/Shutterstock.com

A general election will take place in no more than a year’s time. It could even be mere months away. Having held a double-digit poll lead for two years, Labour would seem to be on to course to enter government.

In the UK, unlike almost every other country, that means entering government on the morning after polling day. Opposition leaders become Prime Ministers. Shadow ministers start running departments. The small teams of opposition start working with hundreds, or thousands, of civil servants. A dizzying transition of power takes place overnight, and oppositions that prepare for this eventuality are better at governing – particularly in the crucial early years of a parliament.

So, while much of the attention will be on possible election dates, and on the polls, the next few months are also a critical period for Keir Starmer and his team to plan for how they intend to govern.

Resources are limited and campaigning will always be the priority for any opposition this close to an election. There is also concern to avoid complacency about victory and be accused of “measuring the curtains”. But preparing well for a possible transition of power provides a foundation for faster, more enduring policy change and for more effective and stable government.

Labour must make the most of access talks with the civil service

In one sense, Labour is better prepared than it was in 1997, the last time it moved from opposition to government. Back then, not one member of Tony Blair’s shadow cabinet had experience of running a government department, though some had been junior ministers or special advisers.

This time around Starmer’s team includes three shadow secretaries of state – Yvette Cooper, Ed Miliband and Hilary Benn – who have previously sat around the cabinet table, as well as four others who have been ministers.

But while that experience will undoubtedly help, Starmer and his shadow ministers have yet to start access talks – the moment when the opposition is granted access to the civil service ahead of a general election to discuss potential future policy plans and build relationships.

For both the 1997 and 2010 elections, access talks began at least 16 months before the end of the parliament. This time Labour will have at most 12 months, and possibly fewer. With speculation of a May election, time is running out.

Rishi Sunak must authorise access talks, and Starmer request that the talks begin. Claims have been reported that Sunak refused to approve talks at the end of last year. If this is the case, then this should be immediately rectified. The Prime Minister must authorise talks to begin this month. And when they do, Labour must make the most of them.

Starmer and his team need to finalise their policy priorities

Our new IfG report, published today, sets out how any opposition party should best use the final 12 months (or fewer) before a general election. Preparing for government: How the official opposition should ready itself for power, looks back at past transitions drawing on the reflections of former ministers, senior civil servants and former political and special advisers, to set out the steps that Starmer should take.

Labour has talked openly about the fact that its preparation is well under way, and it is clear that the party is making progress on key issues like its policy review. There is, however, more to do, and it should stay focused on preparation even as pressures continue to mount elsewhere.

First of all, Starmer and his team need to finalise a clear set of policy priorities, as well as the priority legislation needed in a first King’s Speech which will happen within weeks of taking power. This means the Labour leader brokering the necessary trade-offs, which will, inevitably, require tough negotiations with shadow cabinet colleagues.

If Labour wins the election then it stands to inherit a system that has been under considerable strain in recent years and a fiscal outlook that presents a very serious challenge. Shadow ministers will push for their own briefs and projects to be centre stage of any policy prospectus – but not everyone will get what they want.

Labour must decide what level of detail to share with civil servants

With policy agreed, shadow teams must also work out what level of detail they will share with the civil service and when during talks; building agreement now for what will (and will not) be discussed will help focus minds.

For example, in the run-up to the 1997 general election, Labour’s plans to announce independence of the Bank of England were not shared with the Treasury. However, Gordon Brown was able to announce this radical policy just four days after he became Chancellor because of the preparatory work he and his then adviser Ed Balls had undertaken.

On the other hand, the Department for Education was well briefed about Michael Gove’s reforms ahead of the 2010 election – with the Academies Act 2010 passed less than three months after the election.

Not all policies will be so easily become law. Ahead of the 2010 general election, Iain Duncan Smith had made clear his determination to overhaul the benefits system and introduce Universal Credit. But timetables were unrealistic and key implementation problems, like access to IT, were not given sufficient attention. More flexibility upon entering office would have made for more successful policy.

Detailed preparation now will make for more effective government

These access talks will not be straightforward. Labour’s five missions are not confined neatly to five individual departments, so Starmer and his team will need to work with the Cabinet Office to arrange cross-cutting talks. He should also plan what machinery of government changes are necessary to support these cross-government missions, working with chief of staff Sue Gray to decide how they would restructure the centre of government.

Finally, Starmer should decide on his team for government – and stick to it. This means avoiding any more shadow cabinet reshuffles before the election and identifying a list of planned core special adviser appointments prior to concluding access talks discussions. Shadow ministers who have remained in post for some time will be best placed to inherit government departments; core special advisers who know where they might end up will similarly be better prepared.

There is no avoiding the shock of an instant transition of power. Those who have been through it say in the IfG’s Ministers Reflect archive that nothing really prepares for this moment. But thorough, detailed preparation in this final period makes for more effective government and makes it easier, and usually faster, to implement reform.

Access talks should be authorised and begin as soon as possible. Missions and the policies beneath them must be marshalled into a coherent set of core priorities. There is still time for this work – but it must not be neglected.

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