Labour looks to ex-civil servants to boost ranks as general election looms

Party goes on hiring spree of former officials in the run-up to general election
Sue Gray on her first day working for Labour leader Keir Starmer earlier this month. Photo: PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

The Labour Party has been on a hiring spree of former civil servants as it gears up for the looming general election.

With former Whitehall titan Sue Gray now in place to plan for civil service reform, the Labour Party has recruited more than a dozen civil servants in the last 18 months, according to a Guardian analysis of LinkedIn profiles.

Former-official recruits are most likely to come from the Treasury, according to the analysis – which notes that the actual number of ex-civil servants taking up jobs with the party is likely to be higher than LinkedIn profiles show.

They include Nick Williams, who became Labour’s head of economic policy in April after nearly six years at the Treasury – first as a policy adviser on science and innovation and then working on growth strategy. He previously worked on public service innovation in the Government Office for Science.

Other ex-Treasury staff include senior policy advisers and a former head of global financial partnerships for several south-east Asian countries and Switzerland, who joined shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves’s team in May.

Labour has also hired staff with experience in No.10 and other departments including the Government Legal Department – with a senior lawyer hired as legal counsel this spring.

With the next general election due no later than January 2025, political parties are throwing resources into their election strategies and policy plans.

Institute for Government programme director Alex Thomas said the hiring spree “reflects where we are in the political cycle, around a year out from the election”.

“The benefit of hiring ex-civil servants is they are people who understand the institutional architecture of Whitehall, so know how to get things done in government, which is a different skill from the campaigning skills of opposition,” he told the Guardian.

“It’s also helpful to have people who speak the language. There is actually a whole language of officialdom that it’s useful to be able to translate. Thirdly, it gives Labour a network of relationships. The party have some shadow ministers who’ve been in government before , but the civil service is another source of expertise regarding how to translate a political idea into reality. It’s helpful to have people who know where the power lies and how the sausage gets made.”

Labour’s poaching of Sue Gray – who in the last few years has been a second permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities – was the source of controversy last year, with some suggesting the move implied Gray had not been fully impartial when she conducted the inquiry into lockdown-breaking gatherings in government at the height of the Covid pandemic.

However, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments concluded that Gray had not broken any rules.

It said there was “no evidence” to demonstrate that Gray “made decisions or took action in office which favoured the employer” in expectation of getting a role with the Labour Party, including during her Partygate investigation.

Gray took up work for the political party this month after a six-month waiting period mandated by the watchdog, and she is expected to lead a shakeup of departments to better suit the delivery of Keir Starmer’s “missions” for government.

Labour has said that to deliver the missions – securing the highest growth in the G7, making Britain a green energy superpower, breaking down barriers to opportunity, fixing the NHS and making streets safer – it will need “a sharp break from business-as-usual government”.

“What Sue Gray will be doing when she starts in September is working out what needs to change in government to make the missions happen,” they said.

“Some of that will be about traditional machinery of government changes – are the departments we will inherit the right ones – but also things like, can you do more with cabinet committees, or have cross-government teams with a specific focus [on particular missions]. She won’t be thinking about the election, but how we will make stuff happen if we win.”

Gray is also expected to take part in access talks with the civil service about Labour’s plans for office and potential reform ahead of the next general election, which must take place no later than January 2025.

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