Getting Labour ready for power

12 Feb 2024, 09:00

By Reg Pula, Associate Director

With the Labour Party polling consistently at around 20% above the Tories, it is widely expected that, barring an economic miracle or self-inflicted wounds, they will form the next Government after a UK general election this year, the date of which remains in the purview of the Prime Minister.

Rishi Sunak has granted the right to begin “access talks” and Labour have officially requested them. These talks are meetings held between the Opposition and the Civil Service to ensure a smooth transition should Labour win the election. Such discussions do not formally involve the private sector, but businesses have an opportunity to inform them through their own engagement with Shadow Ministers and Whitehall officials.

I was involved in access talks in 2019 in my role as Political Adviser to the then Shadow Defence Secretary, Dame Nia Griffith MP. We held several meetings with the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Defence and other members of the senior civil service. Some believe access talks are too formal and not especially productive. I believe that you get what you invest.

My tips to those beginning the process now and doing so for the first time are:

  1. Make sure to plan ahead. Speak with those who have current experience dealing with your specific Department, so you have a better sense of what you should be asking. For those in the private sector with experience of engaging with Government, this is a perfect opportunity to deepen dialogue with the Opposition and offer your insight.
  1. Make sure to come to that first meeting with 3-5 core, detailed priorities, and trust in the professionalism of the Civil Service. They are there to help you succeed.
  1. Do not be afraid of asking “stupid” questions. Make sure you come out of these talks with a good understanding of your prospective role, how policy is implemented, how the Department functions, communicates externally and interacts with other Departments, especially No.10.
  1. Representatives from the Leader’s office should be involved in many of these meetings, but the Shadow Secretary of State also needs to be given the space to develop their own relationship with their potential officials.
  1. Bring in the wider Shadow Ministerial team to these meetings. It is important that Shadow Ministers understand how the Department operates, what their specific role will entail and what their scope of action will be.
  1. Politicians are the ultimate decision makers, but special advisers are their ‘boots on the ground’. Most advisers in the Labour Party have no prior experience working in or with Government. That is to be expected given Labour have not been in power for 14 years. Advisers should therefore be permitted to have some parallel meetings of their own with civil servants to better understand their respective roles and go into more detail on how they can help operationalise political priorities mandated by the electorate.
  1. These meetings are also essential for Civil Service preparation, as well as for developing rapport. Crucially, you must therefore ensure that the talks are genuinely two-way. Moreover, some officials may also view these meetings as ‘job interviews’. For example, some civil servants may be seeking opportunities to move into future Ministerial Private Offices. Treat them as such. You want the best people around you.