David Blunkett: ‘Rejoice – but tough choices loom handling so many new MPs’

David Blunkett
Photo: @Keir_Starmer

Rejoice, celebrate, find a sense of relief and if, I’m honest, apprehension. We’ve actually won! 

No one could have expected this back in 2020 and it’s a great achievement for Keir Starmer and the leadership team. 

Cautious as it was, the campaign has been a great success. David Evans, Pat McFadden and the team at headquarters deserve great credit. Behind the scenes, and without any fanfare or publicity, they have focused, helping key seats and, above all, were prepared for the bombshell on 22nd May when Sunak called the election.

But now the reality must be confronted. We’re not in opposition anymore, we’re in government! 

Labour in government

It is always better to be able take responsibility, be accountable and actually do something positive, rather than to simply criticise. With it, however, comes enormous challenges. 

One, which has been overlooked, is this: we started the selection holding just 206 seats. Some colleagues had already announced that they were standing down, or did so the moment the election was called.

Therefore, the number of those carrying through into the new parliament compared to first time Labour Members, is disproportionately low.

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‘What should we look for in Keir Starmer’s cabinet?’

The consequences are twofold. Firstly, it reduces the pool from which Keir Starmer, this weekend, chooses ministers.

Secondly, it means that whatever the briefings and nonsense from those who should know better, there will have to be an early reshuffle once Keir is clear who is delivering and who isn’t.

I’m afraid this is the real world of difficult politics.

What makes matters even more challenging is the fact that we have more shadow ministers than there are paid ministerial posts available. Once again, those who have never been anywhere near government will not be aware that there is a limit on the “payroll vote”. This is not only a logistical nightmare but also a genuine human problem.

There will be, in the Commons and the Lords, those who have given great service, often unseen and unheard, who will not receive the phone call. Or rather, they will, but it might not be one they want.

People in politics

Human resource (what we used to call “personnel functions”) are in short supply in the political arena. The Whips are theoretically the ones to turn to, but their job is, as the title describes, to make sure that the government business gets through.

Of course, this won’t be a problem with so many new members. Who’s going to rock the boat when you have just won your seat on the back of Keir Starmer’s carefully orchestrated campaign? 

There again, another challenge arises. Once you have provided what is, frankly, a very minimal induction process, allocated offices and helped with advice on recruiting staff, what do you do with so many backbenchers? 

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This has been a perennial problem over many years. It was certainly true in 1997, with the majority of 179. The truth is that very little thought is given to this.

In reality, once the Select Committee numbers have been agreed and the posts filled; once the un-remunerated posts of Parliamentary Private Secretary (“bag carriers”, as they used to be known) have been allocated and the initial euphoria rubs off, then will be the time to think about how to motivate, maintain morale and direct the energies of the troops.

We’ve never been good at using the talent of those with multiple experiences. We should put them on the numerous reviews that emerge from the manifesto, but it’s rare that this happens. Backbench committees exist but have zero influence and are not connected to the policy process. 

I’m sure we’ll all be looking forward to an exhilarating Party Conference, surrounded by hangers-on who want to get a piece of the new government. 

Because I think it’s time to face another reality. There were frequent briefings before the election that “policy was done”, we’d completed the process and were ready.

Handling policy

Well, those who briefed this need to grow up. There is a mountain of policy still to be developed. Not handing over the task of filling in the gaps to the civil service, but drawing in, from every possible quarter, expertise to put together a delivery plan – which is something very different to the broad brush “missions”.

If you think this is unfair, then I take you back, 27 years, to 1997. We had two very different processes running. One was where hard work and detailed review had already taken place before we won, and secondly, where it hadn’t. In the latter case, the ideas were there, but not the nuts and bolts. The detail had been left until later. 

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I’m absolutely certain that the civil service will want to be helpful, but moving quickly is not one of their strengths. Believe me, I not only held posts in the Cabinet for eight years, but I studied politics, and I still engage with academia.

Tony Blair described the “scars on his back.” But it wasn’t about “obstruction”, or, as the late Tony Benn used to describe it, an inertia or innate political opposition to progressive policy, but rather a way of doing things. Unless very clear timetables and targets are laid down and it’s made totally clear that time is of the essence, implementation will drag on.

The only people who will get the blame for failure to deliver is the Labour government. 

Once we get past the two-year mark, there will be an outcry of “where is the change”. Now, as we enter government, that is the question we must be able to answer. 

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