Labour’s preparations for power - access talks begin

19 Jan, 2024

Labour’s preparations for government are intensifying. Access talks between Labour and senior civil servants have now been requested by Labour and authorised by the Prime Minister. They will start soon – but they will be very private and there will be wariness on both sides.   

What happens in the access talks between Labour and the civil service? 

The access talks will comprise discussions between Starmer’s team and the Cabinet Office, as well as between the most senior departmental civil servants and individual shadow cabinet members. These discussions have taken place ahead of every general election since the 1960s. 

Most Permanent Secretaries will meet their counterparts four or five times, normally in the House of Commons, but the structure and substance of the talks will vary according to the preferences of individual shadow ministers. Pre-election shadow ministerial briefs are no guarantee of the same job in government – and the value of access talks is obviously reduced when shadow ministers end up in different departments.   

The discussions will cover operational matters, such as the shadow ministers’ preferred ways of working, private office arrangements and the organisational structure of the department.  

On the policy side, civil servants are not allowed to advise shadow ministers on existing government policy or Labour’s own policy commitments. Their primary purpose will be for civil servants to ask questions about Labour’s proposals to obtain a better understanding of their priorities. This includes any machinery of government changes. Labour is considering how Whitehall may need rewiring to deliver its missions, but better use of cabinet committees or new cross-government taskforces are more likely than a significant departmental restructure.   

How important are these access talks? 

Many former Labour shadow ministers were underwhelmed by earlier rounds of access talks. To an extent, this is because Labour, having lost most recent elections, never got to see the benefits of the civil service’s preparations in government, such as day 1 briefings for incoming ministers or early policy and implementation advice on priority issues. But the story from those involved in 1997 is only moderately different.  

Many former senior civil servants have also found the talks limited, but it is a valuable opportunity to build personal relationships. The talks are strictly confidential even within departments. In most cases, only the Permanent Secretary and a handful of the most senior officials are involved. They are prevented from sharing the contents not just with existing ministers, but also with most civil service colleagues. There is no opportunity for direct business engagement in the process – and Labour and the civil service are unlikely to respond positively to businesses that attempt to insert themselves. 

It is easy to exaggerate the significance of the access talks in terms of policy formation. Prior to the election, this needs to happen within the party. The process of the access talks will provide Labour with a more structured framework around which to organise its preparations for government and begin to prioritise its policy commitments. However, its team is underpowered and will not have the capacity to develop detailed implementation plans.  

In areas where Labour’s thinking is more developed, or where Labour is keen for quick wins, it will be very cautious about sharing for fear of leaks. Before the 1997 election, Gordon Brown’s team did not raise Bank of England independence or details on its windfall tax in access talks with Treasury officials. 

How else is Labour preparing for government? 

Labour’s preparations for government are highly political. The focus of planning for the first 100 days of government, legislation for the first King’s Speech and priority measures for a first Budget is on how to sustain political momentum after the election, rather than a detailed audit of every aspect of Labour’s programme.   

For most shadow ministers and advisers, almost all their energy will be dedicated to the campaign. Starmer and Chief of Staff Sue Gray – both of whom have considerable senior experience in the civil service – will instil diligence and professionalism in Labour’s preparations. Still, no one will realistically expect shadow ministers to divert their focus away from electoral priorities.    

Gray has also been assessing the strengths and weaknesses of Labour’s team. Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper and Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy have recently made experienced hires. Further pre-election recruitment is likely, as are additional appointments in government. Some current Labour's advisers are unlikely to stay long in government.

What does this mean for how quickly a future Labour government could implement its policies? 

After the election, Labour – if it wins – will be very reliant on officials for advice, particularly in areas where it does not have well-developed policies. This will draw heavily on advice that officials have been providing to the current government, even if officials are not allowed to share advice given directly to previous ministers. This will be a source of continuity for business. How quickly proposals progress will depend on how much detail is fleshed out before the election – the vaguer the proposals, the longer it will take to generate policy instructions and, where necessary, draft and introduce legislation.

This blog was written by James Kilmartin, who is a former adviser to Labour’s Shadow Cabinet. He oversaw the Labour’s Energy and Climate Change team’s preparations ahead of the 2015 election, including access talks with civil servants. For more information on how Flint's Labour Team can help you navigate any points discussed in this blog, contact us here.

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