Transition talks between opposition and civil service should start straight away, report argues

Institute for Government report warns "time is running short" for access talks to have most effect
Keir Starmer and his shadow cabinet. Photo: Tayfun Salci/Alamy

By Tom Scotson

04 Jan 2024

Transition talks between the civil service and the opposition party should begin in January if Keir Starmer’s Labour is ready to govern the country effectively, a new Institute for Government report has argued.

Labour has averaged a double-digit lead over the incumbent Conservative Party for more than a year and are the favourites to win the next election.

Access talks between the opposition party and civil service have been commonplace for more than 60 years. For both the 1997 and 2010 elections – which saw new incoming administrations – access talks began at least 16 months before the end of parliament, according to the IfG think tank.

For talks to begin Starmer must write to the prime minister and seek permission from Rishi Sunak for shadow ministers to work with Whitehall and prepare for government. 

Emma Norris, the IfG’s deputy director, said while campaigning for political parties is crucial, preparation for government is now “most important”.

 “The final months before a general election are a critical time for any opposition party. Whilst campaigning will always come first – and there is understandable pressure to avoid looking complacent about victory – preparation for governing is most important in this period,” she said.

“When done well, it provides a foundation for faster, more enduring policy change and for more effective and stable government,” she added.  

The cabinet secretary usually asks the prime minister to give access talks between the opposition and Whitehall the green light. They usually play a crucial role in overseeing talks between shadow ministers and Whitehall. Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, is on indefinite medical leave, however.

Labour has a maximum of 12 months to prepare for government. It may have only four months if a spring election is called. Shadow cabinet minister Emily Thornberry recently claimed on Sky News that a May election was the “worst” kept secret in Parliament.  

Back in 1997 Labour did not have a single shadow minister who had experience of running a government department. This time it already has three shadow ministers who have served as a secretary of state. 

Starmer also has numerous shadow ministers who were employed as special advisers in either Tony Blair’s or Gordon Brown’s administrations. However, no current serving pad – an adviser to an opposition frontbencher – has ever worked in government.

Opposition parties in the UK transition to power overnight, which is unusual for modern political systems. The IfG warned that oppositions who prepare for government are better at governing, which is especially “crucial” for the first few years for any administration.

The IfG's report has set out a series of recommendations for Starmer and a potential Labour government to be ready to govern from day one. 

The paper said the Labour leadership should set out a “clear set of priorities” and broker the necessary trade-offs between them. It said it should draft the correct legislation needed in a future King's Speech if it wins power. 

The IfG said shadow ministerial teams should work out what level of detail they want to share with Whitehall. It also said Labour should ask what changes of government are needed to support "cross government missions". 

Finally, the report said the party should avoid more shadow cabinet ministers and crystallise which people it will want to hire as special advisers for each cabinet minister. 

Dr Catherine Haddon, IfG Academy programme director, said access talks are a “crucial” step in preparing for government as they are "the first formal contact between opposition and the civil service; a chance to signal priorities and start building relationships".

"If there is a May election – time is running short to use them to maximum effect,” she added.  

This article was written by Tom Scotson, a reporter at CSW's sister publication PoliticsHome, where this story first appeared 

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