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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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Civil Servants In Talks With Left-Wing Think Tank To Prepare For Labour Government

Labour leader Keir Starmer is a member of the Fabians (Alamy)

6 min read

A leading left-wing think tank is meeting civil servants to discuss how the Labour Party would implement its key policies if it gets into government at the next general election.

The Fabian Society, an influential think tank which was established in 1884 and is affiliated with the Labour Party, is meeting with the civil service this week to discuss how their work could feed into the policy agenda of a potential Labour government.

Official access talks between Labour and the civil service have already begun, with Labour leader Keir Starmer recently meeting with the cabinet secretary Simon Case. The meeting between civil servants and the Fabians would be an unusual move, with interactions between government departments and opposition-aligned think tanks usually limited.

Andrew Harrop, General Secretary of the Fabian Society, told PoliticsHome that while the planned meeting was not part of a “formal process”, he understood civil servants were in the process of “information gathering”. He suggested that the meeting would be with officials from one of the four Great Offices of State: the Cabinet Office, the Treasury, the Foreign Office or the Home Office.

“That never happens for a left-wing think tank that is affiliated to the opposition party,” he said.

“And it is a sign that the civil service is starting to think about a Labour government and wants to have an insight into policy proposals that are either already adopted by Labour or are influential in the lifeblood of the Labour movement.”

In the last few weeks, Labour has been completing its internal manifesto development process. While there could be last minute changes, the process of think tanks such as the Fabian Society offering policy proposals has drawn to a close, meaning the think tank will now “pivot” towards focusing on policy implementation beyond the date of the general election – which is expected to be towards the end of this year.

Harrop said that his organisation was “in the middle” of conversations to determine how their strategy will change to advise Labour if they are in government rather than opposition, as well as what future engagement with the civil service might look like. A few weeks ago, Harrop attended a reunion with a group of his Fabian predecessors to discuss how the think tank operated when Labour was last in government. 

“We probably won't do the sort of [in] depth... policy work in the future, they [Labour] will have whole government departments to do that,” he said. 

“My board has just been in the last few days discussing scenario planning: firstly, what is renewal in power? The Labour Party will have a good two years worth of policies to get on with implementing, but actually, the process of coming up with both detailed policy but also an ambition, a narrative story about where you want to take the country in a decade.

“There's still quite big questions about what is the overall ideological direction of this era of the Labour Party, as opposed to the quite small-scale, cautious policy commitments, which are totally understandable prior to an election.”

Harrop argued that in 1997, when Tony Blair led Labour to a landslide general election victory, the party’s “intellectual shape didn't really become clear until they were in office”.

Having joined the Fabians as a student member in 1997, Harrop has been its director since 2011. Having been involved in the Labour movement through wildly varied stages – describing the Fabians’ relationship with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour as “polite but quite distant” – Harrop said he has no plans to leave any time soon, especially when multiple Labour frontbenchers – including Keir Starmer, Rachel Reeves, Wes Streeting, Anneliese Dodds to name are few – are active Fabian members.

Andrew Harrop
Andrew Harrop has been general secretary of the Fabian Society since 2011 (Alamy)

With so many organisations working to the assumption that there will be a change in government, what does Harrop believe would be the first questions a Labour government would have to answer?

“In terms of the big gaps, the fundamental issue is public spending,” he said.

“The scale of fiscal pressure that we and Rachel will face… I think the Labour Party has still not really woken up to how tough it will be, particularly as there are already cuts pencilled in.”

He predicted that Reeves’ first important job would be to work out how to prevent further cuts in areas such as local government, justice and Defra.

“And that leads to some very obvious gaps where there isn't current policy, and I think it would be a really urgent priority to have some. A good example is universities, with the current university system financially, it’s just not viable to continue as we are.”

As the Fabian Society plans how it can continue to influence Labour’s policy making, Harrop said another particular focus would be on raising living standards and reducing poverty.

“What does success look like? What sort of institutions do you want to build?,” are just some of the questions they want to explore.

Labour has already taken on some of the Fabians’ suggestions on building a National Care Service, with some aspects likely to be seen in the manifesto.

Another area Harrop believes Labour will want to radically change will be childcare, arguing that the front bench “totally buys” the argument to increase spending on very young children to close childhood inequalities and ensure high quality health and education right from the start of life.

“But there isn't current policy, because of the huge fiscal pressures that they face,” Harrop said.

“I think they are going to then need to think about the tax and benefit system of how do you deliver rising living standards for low and middle income families.”

Labour’s “limited” costed proposals such as universal breakfast clubs in schools, according to Harrop, simply form the symbolic “down payment” of what a Labour government would prioritise over five years.

“Labour has always had a credibility point on economics and therefore has felt it needs to have incredibly detailed, costed policies, which are symbolising that we can be trusted as a political force, but also demonstrating the sorts of things that we would choose to do in government. 

“What Labour actually wants to do is to revolutionise early years.

“You've got to be taking the five year perspective rather than the one year perspective of what you want to achieve. It's weird to think about 2028 or 2029, but that's exactly what we will need to do.”

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