Lord Falconer is the man entrusted by Ed Miliband with preparing Labour for government. Here he speaks to Matt Foster about the party’s plans for Whitehall, and why he thinks the coalition has got its relationship with the civil service "dramatically wrong". Photos by Louise Haywood-Schiefer
Labour’s headquarters in central London are disarmingly quiet as CSW arrives to meet Lord Falconer, the man tasked by Ed Miliband with helping to prepare the party for government. An election most pundits expect to be extremely close is just weeks away, and while a countdown clock above reception reminds staff that judgement day is coming, there are few signs of frenzied activity, no West Wing-style flinging open of doors or irate Malcolm Tucker types barking orders at sleep-deprived advisers. Instead, one aide says, Labour is operating with a “quiet determination” to try and secure a victory on May 7 and put the party back in government after just five years out of office.
Falconer, a former lord chancellor and one-time flatmate of Tony Blair, is one of those who has been working in the shadows to ensure that Labour doesn’t waste any time should the election go in its favour. “We want to be ready to make a difference when we get there,” he explains, over one of the many cans of Diet Coke which, along with plenty of apples, have become a staple in the once well-upholstered peer's successful battle to shed five stone.
Part of Falconer's low-key role has been to oversee access talks between the shadow cabinet and Whitehall's permanent secretaries, using the pre-election period to set out "in detail" Labour's priorities for government. The talks have, Falconer says, been “very useful”, although he argues that the party should have had longer to prepare officials. “We couldn’t start until October because the prime minister has to agree… We would have liked to have started in July.” But he says Labour has been “incredibly impressed” by the way civil servants have engaged with the process while remaining steadfastly impartial. “They made it absolutely clear what their position is, which is that they are trying to learn as much as possible so that they can deliver if we win the election.”
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So just what is Labour planning for Whitehall if it gets in? Falconer tells CSW that the party is not looking to impose a major reorganisation of the departments, which he believes can all too often result in pointless upheaval for officials. “The attitude I take to machinery of government changes is that they, of themselves, tend to lead to internal discussions about departmental boundaries. They can lead to internal civil service wars, ministerial wars. By and large they are to be avoided unless there is an absolutely clear and identifiable improvement in delivery for the citizen, that they actually promote a particular, identifiable policy. Only if they satisfy that delivery test are they worth doing.”
Falconer says there will be therefore be “very, very few” departmental rejigs under a Miliband government, arguing that these would serve as “too much of a distraction from the need to hit the ground running”. But he doesn’t close the door on them completely, adding that “there may be some” to come.
If Labour keeps to that pledge not to tinker with the structure of Whitehall too drastically, the party will be following in the footsteps of the coalition, which largely stuck with the departments it inherited. Officials who remember Labour's short-lived Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills – rebranded after just two years – or the ill-fated Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, will no doubt breathe a sigh of relief.
But one area where Falconer clearly sees the need for a shake-up is in the relationship between the departments and those three Whitehall big-hitters: Downing Street, the Treasury and the Cabinet Office – known collectively as the centre of government. “The role of the centre has got to be to have a sufficient policy-making capacity, to be able to accurately and effectively evaluate plans that will be coming from the departments and to ensure that the policy changes are the right ones,” he argues.
Falconer is sharply critical of the coalition’s decision to scrap the Downing Street Strategy Unit, brought in by the Blair government in 1997 to track progress and support departments with policies that cut across Whitehall boundaries. He argues that, in a rush to signal a decisive break from the past and bring an end to perceived micromanagement by Number 10, the current government “in effect abolished the centre’s ability to properly evaluate policy”. David Cameron later restored some of this central capacity by creating an Implementation Unit in the Cabinet Office, but Falconer thinks the centre still lacks sufficient clout.
“We will obviously take advantage of the bits of machinery that are there in the centre to do effective policy-making, primarily as a challenge function to the departments,” he says. “But it will, I think, have to be more driving than it is at the moment.”
The coalition also rid itself of Labour’s Public Service Agreements in 2010, a move away from strict performance targets for public service outcomes in favour of a looser system of Business Plans to monitor departmental progress. If Falconer sees the need for a more robust centre to keep an eye on performance, should civil servants start readying themselves for PSAs Redux?
“In some cases targets will be appropriate,” he says. “I don’t think that one should think targeting is an aim in itself. But in certain cases, where standards are dropping or the public are experiencing a significant reduction in delivery from a public service and it would be helped by there being a clear target, then we would use targeting to achieve that particular end.” However, Falconer is quick to acknowledge that during Labour's last spell in government, targets sometimes acted as a “perverse incentive” on the way departments went about their work. “One’s got to be careful to avoid that."
So Whitehall can expect limited machinery of government changes under a Labour government, as well as a beefed-up Downing Street operation to allow the centre to keep a closer eye on departmental performance. But what about the bigger picture of civil service reform? Is the party planning to tear up Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude’s legacy if it wins power?
“I would say very many of the reforms that have taken place over the last five years are very worthwhile and should be promoted,” Falconer says, while trying to present the coalition’s changes as part of a continuum. “It’s a picture of an organisation that is, and always has been in my experience, trying to keep up with the changing world it’s trying to serve. It’s recognised over time that the skill set for civil servants needs to change - the technological age, much more collaboration with both the private sector and the third sector, an understanding of a much more changing and developing world. So I’m very strongly in favour of many of the reforms that Francis has introduced.”
Falconer singles out for praise the government’s drive to improve Whitehall’s functional expertise, welcoming the way it has focused on building capacity in areas including IT, finance, procurement, HR, and law. He also backs as a “good idea” moves to give ministers more political support and advice in their own departments through the introduction of Extended Ministerial Offices.
Labour’s main objection to the coalition’s approach to Whitehall appears to be one of tone, with Falconer claiming that many civil servants he speaks to become irate at the very mention of the outspoken Maude. “I think they have got very, very dramatically wrong their relationship with the civil servants,” Falconer says. “There is a sense within the civil service that it’s them – the coalition, and maybe more particularly, the Conservative ministers – against the civil service. And that is a very, very bad place for any government that wishes to actually deliver things to be in.”
Indeed, there have been several high-profile examples of politicians laying into public servants over the past five years. Most recently, David Cameron lamented the “buggeration factor” that he claimed had thwarted ministers’ attempts to get key policies through the Whitehall machine, returning to a theme first explored in 2011 when he dismissed “bureaucrats in government departments” as the “enemies of enterprise”. But politics is politics: Tony Blair also spoke of the “scars” on his back from trying to reform the public sector after just two years in office. Does Falconer believe this kind of public criticism actually matters if the day-to-day relationships between ministers and their departments are solid?
“Having been in a ministerial job for 10 years, I think it is absolutely key if you seriously want to deliver change that has an impact on citizens, that you do so in collaboration with the civil service,” Falconer says. “I also find very, very strongly that the civil service is genuinely keen to deliver for the democratically-elected ministers that they are serving, whether they be Conservative or Labour or any other hue.”
Falconer claims the current government has shown a tendency to “blame the civil service” when it has run into trouble. “[Michael] Gove did it, Maude does it, Cameron has done it,” he says. “It’s a very unattractive misplacing of blame on other people’s shoulders. Of course there are ineffective, inefficient civil servants like there are in every organisation. But the institution is talented and keen to serve, and is very keen to do what its elected political masters wish it to do.”
Falconer’s attack on Maude certainly isn’t the first time a Labour figure has questioned the Cabinet Office minister’s approach. Yet many of Maude’s critics also acknowledge – if somewhat grudgingly – that he has taken his job as the minister responsible for the civil service seriously. As Maude likes to point out, Labour's 13 years in government saw 11 different occupants of the MCO post, while he has stayed the full five-year course and overseen major change. How does Falconer respond to the charge that Labour has simply been less interested in the civil service than Maude has?
“If you think about the people who have done the job in the shadow government – Michael Dugher, Jon Ashworth, Lucy Powell – they’re three incredibly talented individuals, really high calibre,” Falconer says. “And each one of them has got into the issues, been interested in the issues, and been very, very aware of the issues. Although, obviously, there are other things in the Cabinet Office brief apart from the civil service, and although it’s not in any sense an issue in the election campaign, it is incredibly important in ensuring that we are successful as a government if we win the election.”
Falconer also points to his own role, and to the relative experience of the team around Miliband (himself a former Cabinet Office minister) as evidence that Labour knows what matters to Whitehall. “Those of us who are helping at the moment, and many members of the shadow cabinet – including the leader of the opposition, the shadow chancellor, the shadow foreign secretary, the shadow home secretary – have been in the Cabinet before. They know what it is like to work closely with civil servants. They know the importance of the civil service to delivery. They know the importance of a good working relationship."
Labour’s plans for the civil service are, of course, dependent on the hand dealt to it by the electorate on May 7. And if it does get in, any of Labour’s ideas for Whitehall could well be tempered by the need to work with another party. As you might expect in the heat of a campaign, Falconer says he remains hopeful of a Labour majority. “There’s everything to play for. I think it’s an election in which every vote will count.”
He also refuses to be drawn on whether he will join the government if Miliband does make it into Number 10, although he says he would “like to help in any way” he can to “make a Labour government successful”. The peer’s appointment as a Miliband adviser was seen as a bold move at the time – Falconer is closely associated with the Blairite wing of the party, while Miliband cut his political teeth as an aide to Blair’s old foe Gordon Brown. But Falconer is quick to praise the current Labour leader, saying he firmly believes that Miliband is “in the right place politically”.
"We have been working together for years now and he has shown a degree of personal strength and personal resilience which has made him, in many respects, the most effective leader of the opposition that there's been in recent years," Falconer says.
Whether Miliband will get the chance to prove that resilience as prime minister remains to be seen. But for now, Falconer is confident that his party has built a strong enough relationship with the civil service to govern effectively should it take power. “My message to the civil service is that we want to be as efficient as possible,” Falconer says. “We know and trust the abilities of the civil service. We want to be in partnership with them in delivering real change, and in delivering real change effectively, after proper thought.”
As the interview draws to a close, there's time for one more revelation, this time dietary: “I’ve moved on from apples to mangoes," Falconer says. "It's Diet Coke and mangoes now. I was wondering, can I spend the rest of my life eating only apples? But no! I’ve moved on." And, as the newly-slender peer heads off for his next engagement, Whitehall can rest assured on one score at least: Falconer, one of the Labour Party's key thinkers on the civil service, knows how to do more with a lot less.
The pace of budget cuts
“In two departments in particular – namely the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Communities and Local Government – there was massive cutting within the departments…And looking at the cuts that have taken place in both those departments, I’m not at all sure that the way they were done very quickly, early on, was wise. I’m not saying there didn’t need to be efficiency savings. But before you lay about departments with an axe, I think you should think very carefully about where the pressures on those departments are going to come in the months and years ahead. Are we going to slash and burn the moment we arrive? The answer is no in relation to what’s going on within departments.”
Non executives on departmental boards
“We back the idea of people who can genuinely bring an independent – meaning independent of the department – pair of eyes, with particular expertise that is relevant to the particular department. My message to the non-executive board members of the various departments would be those who fit the bill we would wish to encourage. But there are non-executive directors who haven’t necessarily been appointed on the basis of their ability to do what I’ve just described but because of their relationship with a political party. And that’s not going to bring the independence that we look for.”
Ed Miliband's campaign performance
"The thing about an election campaign is it is quite a remorseless gaze. You're literally in the middle of a gigantic stadium with only one person in the middle of the pitch and it's pitch-dark except for the search lights on you. And there are 80,000 people in the stadium looking at you. And they've heard through the media lots of bad things about Ed Miliband. And he's performing brilliantly."
Ahead of the election, look out for CSW's major interview with minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude, to be published online this week