‘Keir Starmer is at the peak of his power. How should he make the most of it?’

Phil Tinline
Keir Starmer. Photo: Labour
Keir Starmer. Photo: Labour

What we are witnessing today is a rarity in British politics. Power has changed hands just twice in the last 40 years, and the Labour Party has not managed a transition for more than 27.

Looking back on 1997, Tony Blair remarked that ‘you start at your most popular and least capable, and you end at your most capable and least popular’. And in 1997, the economy was in a much better condition than today. Even at the best of times, the moment a new government takes office is both a golden opportunity and a massive culture shock. 

So how can Labour make best use of its moment of triumph? A new briefing from The Future Governance Forum think tank, 100 Four 100, sets out a series of steps the new government can take to set itself up for success, in its first 100 hours, four weeks, and 100 days.

Placing missions at the heart of government

The first thing the new government must do is to articulate its purpose: why does it want to be there in the first place? As ex-Deputy Cabinet Secretary Helen Macnamara puts it, ‘99% of people who are not in the room [with ministers] have to effectively second-guess what the bosses might want.’ Labour’s stated goal is to make life better for working people, by means of its five missions. To make that happen, it will have to changehave change how government works.

Mission-driven government requires a senior cabinet minister dedicated to driving it forward full-time, for a full parliament, working in tandem with civil service leaders. A Mission Council should be created – comprised of representatives of all tiers of government, the private sector, trade unions and civil society – with Mission Teams for each mission to drive delivery. The Treasury will have to be coaxed into being less risk-averse and more long-term in its focus. Its relationship with Number 10 will be a key test of whether this is working.

All this is vital because if the missions approach is relegated to a ‘nice-to-have’ that only influences jargon, while the serious business of government happens elsewhere, it will wither. But the new government must also fight off the opposite temptation: to try to achieve its aims through centralised lever-waggling. 

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If it is to improve ordinary people’s lives, it must be open and inclusive. Ministers and civil servants will need to show some humility. They should criss-cross the country, developing serious collaborations with leading figures in civil society, business and trade unions. And some of those leaders should be invited to attend cabinet. But we can probably ditch the recent fad for taking the cabinet to ‘the North’ for tweets and pics.

From opposition into power

As they arrive in their new departments, new ministers – most of whom will never have done this before – will need to build constructive relationships with their officials. This has been made harder by Sunak’s decisions to start the access talks late, and call the election early, which cut time for preparatory meetings by more than half. 

But there are practical steps new ministers can take, such as preparing questions they would like answered on day one, and finding ways to maintain relationships with colleagues as they fan out into new offices across SW1. In 2010, the Conservative leadership team sustained its two daily meetings once in power, which proved highly effective. 

‘Bring out your dead’

It is vital for the new government to embed a clear story not only of its purpose, but of what has gone wrong and why radical change is urgent and unavoidable. To do so, it could declare at the beginning of the new parliament that departments should “bring out their dead”. This could be cast as a moment of ‘radical honesty’ where it is acceptable to put all existing problems out in the open. 

Likewise, the government could announce an audit of exactly how broken the country’s systems have become. This could be used as a call for evidence, inviting the whole country to get involved.

Delivering at the right pace

One of the hardest things for a new government to get right is deciding which reforms need to be pursued gradually, and which need immediate action and urgent pursuit. Doing too much too soon is dangerous, but so is doing too little too late. 

Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves have announced a series of early actions to begin the battle to overcome the obstacle course of the planning system and get housebuilding done. Alongside that, they could immediately allow councils to keep all their capital receipts from right-to-buy, such that they can buy new stock. And the Prime Minister could entrench the narrative of national renewal after years of failure by highlighting stories of excessive delay, the public benefits thus lost, and the systems responsible.

Labour has set out six first steps for early delivery, so it should focus on achieving themthat as fast as it can, not least by working out safe ways to expedite recruitment of the promised new teachers and neighbourhood police officers. There will be a series of early legislative announcements in a likely July King’s Speech, including bills to introduce the New Deal for Working People and to set up Great British Energy.

Early signals of government action to meet its promises should buy it time to work with civil servants to transform the missions into a thought-through programme for government, to be announced in the autumn alongside the Budget.

It is vital that voters’ trust is rewarded and democratic politics shows itself capable of keeping its word and making lives better. It is exactly because Britain’s problems are so severe that the arrival of a new government offers such a historically rare opportunity to rebuild the country. 

It is too precious a chance to waste.

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