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  • Writer's pictureJohn Copps

What the new governing party means for the way government works

Updated: Jul 8

Last night saw the election of a Labour government, in power for the first time since 2010. John Copps considers the implications of this change for public services.

And so the long-awaited General Election produced the long-anticipated outcome.

Following last night's exit poll projecting a landslide win for Sir Keir Starmer's Labour Party, there was not much doubt about the result. But as the votes began to be counted, the meaning of this change is yet to become plain.

It is easy to forget what rare events these are. Until last night, a shift in power between the UK's two main parties has happened only once in my working life and twice in my lifetime.

For civil servants in and around Whitehall and beyond, this will be shock to the system. Speaking generally, a change can often be good: to shake things up, pose new questions, and challenge assumptions. Not only does the governing party change, so does the way government is done.

Talking to colleagues and friends with experience over the last two decades or so, here are a few of my reflections on what we might expect and what isn't yet clear:

New government, new energy.

The upcoming cadre of new leaders, ministers and advisers will bring a fresh face and energy to the business of governing. Those involved in policy-making and delivery will feed off that energy, so expect a bounce in morale. It will be up to managers in the civil service to harness and channel this. The suggestion is that ministers won't take their customary break during the recess but will spend the summer at their desks.

A period of uncertainty.

Any new leadership needs time to adjust. Inevitably, after such a long time out of government, most of the ministers appointed will be relatively inexperienced. The manifesto set out only high level aspirations for power - the detail is yet to emerge. Civil servants and politicians will need space to get to know each other and adjust to new priorities.

'Mission-led government': a new way of doing things.

Sir Keir Starmer has made much of Labour's Five Missions for government, even if this remains slightly opaque to most of us. One thing that a focus on missions implies is the need cross-departmental working and collaboration across all tiers of government. What this means in practice is to be defined - how will accountability for missions work, will there be 'mission boards' held responsible for delivery, and how will the Prime Minister be involved?

How the money will work

Much of the campaign was dominated by 'tax and spend' arguments, even though Labour made it clear that it would more or less stick to the budgetary rules set by the Conservatives. Even if it does, holding the levers of power means Sir Keir Starmer and Chancellor Rachel Reeves still have options. Within public services, the big event will the Spending Review which we can expect to conclude by December 2024 and is a chance to recut spending priorities. Until the surprise announcement of a July election, civil servants had assumed there would be a one year 'roll over' settlement for 2025-26. This has since morphed into a hope of a three-year settlement. There might not be any more money but three years gives more scope to commit to long-term priorities, provide certainty over budgets and define a real programme for change.

A chance to reset the relationship between central government and local services.

After 15 years of the same governing party, indelibly associated with the austerity measures started in the 2010s, the relationship between central and local government is at a low ebb. Local government will see its chance to engage with new ministers and restate its pitch. Questions remain to be answered on devolution and Labour's commitment to a 'Take Back Control Act'. The government will want the backing of local leaders and, even if extra money doesn't follow, it can set a new and more collaborative tone.

Over the summer, as the dust settles on this new administration, we'll see how it is likely to behave and where it means business. What we can be sure of is that it is likely to take a very different form to the last 15 years. And the whole system of governance will need to adjust.

Read more about Mutual Ventures' work on Prioritising Public Services here.


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