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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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Labour Could Risk Repeating Mistakes Of 2010 Tory Government

Pressure is mounting on Labour to set out more of their vision for government (Alamy)

7 min read

Senior political figures have warned that a potential new Labour government could risk making similar mistakes to the Conservatives when they made the transition to power in 2010, as a new report has highlighted lessons that Labour should take forward.

With Labour still way ahead in the polls and a general election expected by the end of this year, a new report by the Future Governance Forum (FGF) think tank is just one of many external pieces of work which aim to advise Labour on entering government again for the first time in more than 27 years. With only two changes in government in the last 40 years, the report warned there is only limited institutional knowledge of how to transition effectively. 

Labour has already begun to engage in access talks with civil servants, and the civil service has also invited left-wing think tanks such as the Fabian Society to discuss how the Labour Party would implement its key policies if it gets into government. 

Speaking at the report’s online launch event, senior figures who were involved in the change in government in 2010 said they believed Labour’s preparedness was currently a “mixed picture” and that more needed to be done to outline its overall purpose for government, so that it can start implementing policy straight away.

The FGF report, written by policy associate, author and journalist Phil Tinline, collated information on the Tory 2010 transition to government through interviews with politicians, civil servants, and advisers and concluded that it was very important for a new government to agree on an overriding purpose and not have competing priorities. The report argued that the incoming 2010 Tory government had an "uncertain overall purpose", highlighting divisions in the Tory party at the time between its modernising ‘Big Society’ message to empower individuals, families, communities, councils and charities, and its drive for austerity and controlling public spending. 

“This (and the fate of the Conservatives’ 2019 ‘levelling up’ promises) suggest pitfalls that a new Labour government should avoid if it wants to drive political and economic renewal across the country,” the report said.

Lord Francis Maude, a former Conservative MP and Minister for the Cabinet Office between 2010 and 2015, oversaw much of the Tories' transition from opposition to government. While he denied the Tories' message was "uncertain", he admitted there had been a huge shift in priorities in the aftermath of the financial crash.

"Our approach in opposition was to say we would share the proceeds of growth between better public services and tax cuts," he said.

"Then suddenly the crash happened and there weren't any proceeds of growth and so the focus then inevitably had to be on austerity and fiscal retrenchment and consolidation.”

Tinline told PoliticsHome that there was a risk that Labour could fall into a similar trap, with competing priorities creating an ideological confusion in the eyes of voters. 

"I think there is a risk and I think it's for perfectly good reasons, because you don't want to go too far towards spending too much money but equally, and I think this is something that perhaps does need more focus, there is a risk on the other side of the equation," he said.

"I think that's why I keep talking about this idea of an overarching story, because if you have a story, as I think Margaret Thatcher did for example, you may not have precise departmental policies, but you've got a fundamental way you want to change the country.

"Then when you're faced with those sort of invidious decisions where there is no good option, if you have a clear direction, if you have a clear vision of how life is going to get better, then it is much more possible to make those decisions and not just sound like you're worrying about money... that you're actually trying to do this to get the country to somewhere better, which will take some pain."

Asked by PoliticsHome whether Labour’s priorities for government were clear enough yet, former Permanent Secretary to the Treasury from 2005 to 2016 Lord Nick Macpherson replied: “No, I don't think it is totally clear."

Macpherson held the top civil service role at the Treasury throughout the transition from Labour to the coalition government in 2010, and experienced working with Labour chancellors Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling, and Tory chancellor George Osborne.

“[Labour] are, quite rightly, totally focused on winning, and in seeking to win they are focusing on what's wrong with the current government, rather than their ideological purpose when they've taken office," he continued.

“I don't think that in itself matters providing there's a plan and a compelling story around that plan. This may not play to Keir Starmer’s strengths: he doesn't strike me as someone who wants to wax lyrical about some golden new Jerusalem, but he's going to have to at least come up with a story which can bind what the government does together."

Baroness Ayesha Hazarika, a journalist and former Labour Party adviser from 2007 to 2015, experienced working for Labour when they were transitioning out of government. She said that the current Labour administration's preparedness appeared to be a "mixed picture" and issued a word of warning on the party’s approach to prioritise fiscal responsibility, arguing that reform would be a very important area for Labour. 

“[The thing] Labour has to be really, really careful about is framing an argument which is money versus reform, because the best reform costs money,” she said.

“The reform agenda is going to be so important to Labour but they've got to be careful about how they frame it.”

She added that there would need to be a great deal of urgency in order to implement change straight away.

“I think the focus of Labour coming in is really in that first 100 days and beyond: get some stuff done…," she said.

"You’ve got to get some absolute hardcore consumer retail-friendly changes, done very, very quickly.”

Maude, on the other side of the political transition of 2010, described how he learned from his experience entering government that you needed to build momentum from day one. He cited the 2010 coalition government’s immediate £6.25bn spending cuts upon taking office as an example, which included a freeze on civil service recruitment and cutting spending on consultancy and advertising.

“You need to actually take it and make it work in reality from day one, because Whitehall responds to signals and you need to be in a position to send those signals really quickly,” Maude said.

“Never underestimate the benefits of doing things, even quite small things, and making things happen, because [it gives] the signal not only to the public and to the voters, but also the demonstration effect within government.”

Macpherson said that Tony Blair’s incoming Labour government of 1997 making the Bank of England independent was a good example of making big changes quickly. In 2010, the creation of the National Security Council and the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) were other examples of fast-paced institutional change. With Keir Starmer’s Labour also hoping to set up new institutions such as an Industrial Strategy Council, the report argued that looking at these previous examples could prove key for Labour setting out its core message of government.

“The ideal approach in my view is to have some early announcements which will define the government and be completely uncompromising and very focused,” Macpherson said.

“You need in the first few weeks to have policies, structures and so on, which will show that this time is different.”

The report also recommended that an incoming government should establish a theory of how power should be distributed, develop strong relationships with civil servants ahead of the election, and ensure that incoming ministers are prepared for the huge pressure that would come with the change from life in opposition to government.

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