What does he believe? Articulating a vision will be critical to delivering in office. Image credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Is Labour ready?

No opposition party is truly prepared for government, but the most successful transitions are built on clarity of purpose. Does Keir Starmer’s party know what it wants?
June 3, 2024

On the morning of 12th May 2010, I was sitting in a café in parliament waiting nervously. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government had been formed the previous night and David Cameron was appointing the cabinet. I had been working in Cameron’s policy team for the past year as an education specialist, but had no idea if I was going to have a job in government or not.

My best guess was that I would join the Number 10 policy unit. But unbeknownst to me, Cameron and his policy chief Oliver Letwin had decided to have a much diminished unit with just a handful of advisers.

Then, around 11am, I got a call from Dominic Cummings, who had been Michael Gove’s chief adviser in opposition. “Dwarf, get to the education department, there’s no one with Michael.” Dwarf was his (mostly) affectionate nickname for me, based on my stature.

Gove had gone into Number 10 to be appointed, as expected, to the job of education secretary, but had been informed that this was conditional on sacking Cummings. Andy Coulson, Cameron’s director of communications, had reasonably enough identified Dominic as a troublemaker. (Coulson was later sentenced to 18 months in prison for his role in the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. It takes one to know one.)

This meant Gove had no adviser, so I was dispatched to meet him. When I arrived at the department, I was greeted by someone who said they were my private secretary, which was curious as no one had offered me a job yet. They took me to an office and it turned out I was a senior policy adviser. I was never formally offered the job, but I started it anyway. 

Such is the confusion in which governments are born—a process in which people like me play very minor parts. Unlike American presidents, who get nearly three months of transition time between winning election and taking office, the shift in the UK is immediate and jarring. When the next (almost certainly) Labour government takes office in just a few weeks’ time, it will have to be ready for this.

In opposition there are a handful of your people in each policy area. Your primary focus every day is beating the government. You have no resources, but you’re nimble and can react to news immediately. Your policy programme is high level and only needs to survive contact with journalists, not reality.

In government, you sit atop a vast machine. We had thousands of civil servants in education alone. Every day there are dozens of problems that need decisions, most of which never get any public exposure and many of which are deeply obscure. Within hours of starting my job, I was being asked my opinion on a highly technical question about the role of local authorities in child protection, which I had never thought about before in my life. The learning curve is a vertical line.

Your focus changes completely. Rather than having a single enemy—the other party—you are now fighting battles on multiple fronts, not just with the opposition and the media, but with your own colleagues in other departments whose interests have suddenly diverged from yours. Ministers and advisers spend vast amounts of their time bogged down in arguments over spending allocations or the timings of announcements with people who are supposedly on the same side.  

Then there’s the civil service. Contrary to the popular imagination, civil servants are not trying to block everything; indeed, most senior officials are desperate to ingratiate themselves. But faced with this huge bureaucratic machine, there is inevitably a time-sapping need to chase issues and to understand the preoccupations and procedures of your department. As in any large organisation, you only learn who’s competent over time. There are a few “access” meetings between opposition teams and senior officials before an election, and these help, but they only give a small glimpse of what’s to come. Labour has not had the chance to hold many. 

Every prime minister realises, a few months into the job, that the levers they’re pulling don’t work as expected

It’s an even harder transition for those going into Number 10, as they are supposed to be keeping track of what’s going on across government and imposing strategic order on it. Every prime minister realises, a few months into the job, that the levers they’re pulling don’t work as expected (or, in Liz Truss’s case, that they open a trapdoor marked “economic meltdown”). 

One of the great challenges of modern government is that attempting to exercise tight control as prime minister creates a cross-government bottleneck—this is the mistake Gordon Brown, Theresa May and Rishi Sunak all walked into. But equally, giving ministers too much leeway risks creating uncoordinated havoc. This is then blamed on the centre of government, given the presidential treatment now afforded to prime ministers who are assumed by the media and public to have total executive power. It didn’t take long before Cameron decided that he did need a proper policy unit after all as, among other things, Andrew Lansley’s health reforms careened out of control. 

In early July it will, most probably, be Labour shadow ministers and advisers moving into the departmental offices and facing this transition. Can they tame the machine?

They will have very little time to do so, because of the array of policy problems that will hit them immediately. One big difference with the last two transitions is how much of a mess everything is in. In 1997, the incoming Labour government faced deteriorating public services but inherited an economy that had grown by 2.5 to 4 per cent every year for the previous four years. There was space to spend—initially cautiously, and then munificently.

In 2010 the economy was in a mess, and, even if George Osborne’s austerity measures had been less drastic, cutbacks would have been necessary. But services were largely working well. NHS satisfaction was at an all-time high. Schools were improving. Child poverty had fallen. Rough sleeping was, if not quite a thing of the past, well down on historic levels. Numbers seeking asylum had dropped. There was space to make policy, and still a bit of financial fat in the system that could be repurposed for new ideas.

And in 2024? The economy has hardly grown in the last five years, and almost every public sector metric is pointing in the wrong direction. As in 1997, more investment is badly needed, but the fiscal space is tightly constrained. And taxes are already rising, even if they remain lower than the average for rich countries. 

It’s not just about money. There is also a deficit of ideas. In 1997 the “third way” was more than a slogan. A traditionally centre-left approach to public sector investment, particularly in the workforce, was combined with Thatcherite approaches to boosting productivity through the use of accountability targets and sanctions for failure, together with greater operational autonomy. There were big gains to be made from this approach. Just look at the press coverage of state schooling in the late 1990s—when education was a top three issue for voters—compared to the late 2000s, or rates of satisfaction with the NHS.

In 2010, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition faced an economic mess, but public services were largely working well. In 2024, almost every public-sector metric is pointing in the wrong direction. Credit: Shutterstock, Alamy In 2010, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition faced an economic mess, but public services were largely working well. In 2024, almost every public-sector metric is pointing in the wrong direction. Image credit: Shutterstock, Alamy

By 2010 there was still some mileage in such policies: the more successful reform programmes, such as in education and welfare (including, after a great deal of pain, the introduction of universal credit), were ones that most Blairites would have been happy to support. This seam, though, has now been exhausted. The benefits of this kind of approach have been realised and the weaknesses are now becoming ever more apparent.

The welfare system is a good example. We have had 30 years of successive governments creating more onerous conditions for benefits recipients and increasing sanctions on those who fail to meet them. This may have helped get more people into work initially, but is now having undoubtedly negative effects, creating ever deeper poverty traps and pushing people away from the labour market. 

Or take the NHS. Blairite success was built on substantial investment combined with targets. It reduced waiting lists and A&E times very successfully, but it did little to shift resources from acute to preventative healthcare or build physical capacity, which has meant pressure has continued to build on the system. Successive governments have frequently talked about prevention but felt unable to let the target-based model go and embrace decentralisation. 

Even if money could be found, there are policy culs-de-sac all over the place, and neither the government nor the Labour party, to date, have offered a convincing sense of having an alternative model for public services in mind. 

So Labour, in managing its transition, faces three questions: how does it make the machinery of government work as well as possible; how does it find the money to do anything; and how does it deliver public service reform in a way that doesn’t pursue ever diminishing—or even negative—returns. 

Senior figures have given a lot of thought to the first of these challenges. Starmer will be the first ex-senior civil servant to become prime minister since Harold Wilson (his former role as director of public prosecutions was at permanent secretary level) and his chief of staff, Sue Gray, worked at the heart of the Cabinet Office for many years. They will have a better sense of what’s coming than most of their predecessors.

Various Labour-associated thinktanks have been considering how to organise the centre of government more effectively, such that it can drive ahead on Labour’s long-term “missions” (a phrase, it’s fair to say, that has not caught the public imagination), rather than the usual day-to-day firefighting. The party is also likely to appoint a new head of the civil service—a move intended to boost morale and encourage many of the talented officials who have left since Brexit to return. 

But it’s not clear they’re thinking radically enough. Over the past 14 years, Number 10 and the Cabinet Office have become progressively less effective, partly because of prime ministerial churn, while the Treasury is effectively all-powerful. It is chancellors, with their fiscal rules, who have determined government strategy—to the extent there has been one. Every analysis of the centre of government highlights this as a major problem. Will Starmer and Gray be able to balance a broader policy agenda with the Treasury’s concerns?

Which goes to the second challenge. It is not feasible for Labour to stick to the current government’s fantasy spending plans, which have been set purely to allow for pre-election tax cuts. The party has, though, committed to fiscal rules similar to the current government’s, and to not increasing the major revenue raisers such as income tax or National ­Insurance contributions. They have left themselves some wiggle room to squeeze out a small amount of additional borrowing and to increase second-tier taxes, but not much. 

Maybe they’ll get lucky and economic forecasts will improve: things do seem to be getting a little brighter. But they can just as easily deteriorate, given the huge range of potential global triggers, such as widening conflict in the Middle East or a trade war between the US and China. The Conservatives have left no buffer whatsoever.

Moreover, new ministers will have almost no time to assess the situation before having to make decisions. Labour will have to do a spending review this autumn to set departments’ budgets. The first one will almost certainly be limited to covering a single year, because it needs to be done quickly. But it would still present the party with difficult choices. As things stand, there are no budgets for any department or public service, except defence, from April 2025 onwards. This creates paralysis.

A one-year spending review will allow a little space for a more comprehensive one the following year, but the available choices still look tricky to say the least. It would cost over £25bn by 2028/29 just to avoid the cuts pencilled in by the Conservatives while maintaining implied levels of NHS and defence spending. That would do nothing to deal with any of the problems that indisputably require more cash, like the lack of prison space, or huge maintenance backlogs for schools and hospitals. Nor would it allow for any measures to make the welfare system less brutal, such as ending the two child benefit limit, or for investment in growth-oriented policy like transport infrastructure or industrial strategy.

Unless Labour gets lucky with the economy (and that might happen—forecasts from the UK’s fiscal watchdog, the Office for Budget Responsibility, swing around often) then it will be left with a simple choice: change the fiscal rules to allow more borrowing; increase one or more of the big taxes; or leave its backbenchers and their constituents in a state of fevered unhappiness. Many Labour candidates work in the public sector or for charities. They are simply not going to accept years more of the status quo on spending. While senior Labour figures are, of course, aware of all this, you get the sense they are seeing this as a post-election problem, and are just praying it will solve itself.

Starmer could be the first ex-senior civil servant to become prime minister since Harold Wilson. He and his chief of staff, Sue Gray, formerly of the Cabinet Office, understand  what’s coming better than their predecessors. Credit: Shutterstock, Alamy Starmer could be the first ex-senior civil servant to become prime minister since Harold Wilson. He and his chief of staff, Sue Gray, formerly of the Cabinet Office, understand what’s coming better than their predecessors. Image credit: Shutterstock, Alamy

The refusal to engage with the financial reality has also made it hard to come up with an alternative approach to public service reform, because almost anything likely to help would require upfront investment. For instance, allowing disabled people to keep more of their benefits if they attempt to get back into work could see the overall welfare bill reduced over time, but only after a short-term increase. 

Even policies that seem as if they shouldn’t cost anything turn out to do so in practice. For example, we could make more efficient use of court space and judicial time to reduce the backlog of cases, but not unless we fund more prison spaces to cope with the higher number of convictions.

But there’s an even bigger barrier: the tactical approach employed by Labour to win the election actively works against its ability to engage in serious reform subsequently. 

Campaign chiefs have rightly identified competence as the Conservatives’ main weakness. The summer of 2022, with Boris Johnson battling to stay in Downing Street amid multiple scandals, followed by the Truss calamity, severely damaged their reputation as a party fit to govern. This has been true for all kinds of voters—left, right, socially authoritarian and liberal, Leave or Remain.

This has allowed Labour to target its campaign rhetoric at the widest possible audience, focusing entirely on competence rather than ideology or the underlying validity of policy choices. Which has worked well in building a commanding poll lead, but has also boxed them in. 

Government is unpredictable —you have some choice over priorities, but none over the crises you’ll be dealing with

Criticising the Conservatives for increasing the tax burden, or pushing up the disability benefits bill, or not having tough enough sentencing policies, or for paying NHS managers too much, may appear clever right now. It is broadening Labour’s appeal to voters who might have ideological concerns about the party. But the problem with turning Tory attack lines back against them is that it affirms the underlying principle. It is a move predicated on the assumption that their policies are just badly implemented, not wrongheaded.

There is little evidence that Labour is willing to take on any of the major policy shibboleths of the past 30 years—whether it’s ever increasing sentences for an ever wider range of crimes; or increasingly aggressive welfare sanctions; or the imbalance between the taxation of income and wealth. Doing so would require persuading the public that achieving its desired outcomes might require a different approach from the one pursued for the past four decades.

This highlights, perhaps, the core paradox of politics over recent decades: that the more political parties have tried to pander to public opinion, the less popular they have all become. There seems to be little understanding that messages that poll well but lead to worse outcomes ultimately reduce public trust. Despite all the talk of “difficult” or “unpopular” choices, the unwillingness to risk a few days of negative headlines in return for a strategy that might work has become endemic. 

It’s possible, if unlikely, that post-election there will be a shift to worrying more about policy than communications. But even if this happens, the lack of planning pre-election, plus the current rhetoric, will make it harder to pivot. There will be a honeymoon period in which problems can continue to be blamed on Tory incompetence, but at some point Labour will have to commit either to the policy status quo or a new approach. And either choice, in every policy area, will risk fracturing its voter coalition.

None of this is to say the party offerings are identical. Labour would not ­continue with some of the madder schemes the Conservative right is plotting in order to, ineptly, tackle the threat from the Reform party to its right. Starmer will not be threatening to leave the European Convention on Human Rights or scrap the Supreme Court. Both he and Rachel Reeves are institutionalists who see the danger in undermining the architecture of the state. Nor will Labour employ such aggressive rhetoric against various dispossessed groups. 

In a couple of carefully chosen areas like planning and devolution, the party is offering some differentiation from the Tories, though in both cases the substance is less dramatic than the rhetoric. But it’s hard to look at the state of the country and think that Labour’s current policy package, plus more competence and energy, will be enough.

No opposition party is ever ready for government. Back in 2010 I’d argue our education team did as much as could have been done with the resources available: we had a clear list of things we wanted to do, we’d even drafted a bill. This was an unusual level of preparedness. Yet we were still overwhelmed by the reality of government; hit with an endless series of problems we had no way of knowing about or no opportunity to understand in advance.

Government is inherently unpredictable: you have some choice over priorities, but none over the particular set of crises and screwups you’ll end up spending most of your time dealing with. 

What oppositions can do is develop core principles that allow them to survive the storms of power. The only way for prime ministers to cope in our system is for those around them to be so clear about their beliefs that they can act on their behalf knowing it will be in line with expectations. The same applies to ministers trying to marshal vast departments and the officials working for them.

The tactical adeptness required in government flows from strategic clarity. In opposition, Labour has found that clarity in a focus on competence. But this will not translate into government—competence is a desired outcome, not a principle. If Labour is to be a successful government, Keir Starmer and his top team need to decide—and communicate—what they really believe. There’s no amount of detailed planning that can compensate for that.