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Access granted: Labour opens talks with the Civil Service

By SEC Newgate team
25 January 2024
Public Affairs
By Allie Rennison

With the polls consistently looking as they are, preparations for day one (and beyond) of a new government have never been more important. In this context, the Prime Minister’s recent granting of access talks between the civil service and the Labour Party as the official Opposition will have some real teeth behind it - unlikely to be wasted labour (so to speak).

While we have been here before, including what turned out to be the two months before the 2019 election, plans for change have rarely in recent times been so meaningful. Back then, the polls were not only less unanimous, but the civil service was in paralysis somewhat, occupied with imminent planning for Brexit (and a putative no-deal one at that).

This was a marked change from a referendum that had seen the civil service kept from substantive contingency planning for a Leave outcome. It also provided a challenge for civil servants who were in the midst of monumental and hugely sensitive negotiations with the EU - information on which the Opposition expected access to and would doubtless inform their election approach given the seminal role that Brexit would play in it.

This time around, while the overlay with manifesto development and political contexts still warrant the secrecy needed for this process to develop properly, the nature of discussions are somewhat different. Civil servants and politicians alike will be focused on building confidence for future relations and hitting the ground running. The role of Labour’s Chief of Staff Sue Gray, formerly the Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary, will be paramount and bring an air of professionalism to getting ready for an ostensible “day one” - as well as reinforcing message discipline and limiting the numbers of those involved. Baselines and ground rules will need to be established first and foremost for the scope of talks.

Given the noise over numbers associated with (but spoken less of in recent months) Labour’s spending plans, talks with Treasury senior civil servants -and we are talking senior in the form of the Permanent Secretaries and Director Generals- will be key, and robust. Businesses and other stakeholders shouldn’t expect a window into these discussions, but it is a time to reinforce the importance of maintaining civil service relationships. Unlike the US, with some notable historical exceptions including in recent times (think Tom Scholar and Liz Truss), the top brass of departments does not shift with changes in government.

This is a healthy reminder of the vital role of continuity and impartiality that the UK Civil Service plays. It already has some recent experience of steadying the ship across several iterations and transitions between arguably radically different governments - albeit all led by the Conservative Party. A Labour government would be ever more in favour of positive and productive working relationships with civil servants - indeed it has made political fanfare of examples of where this has gone wrong at times with some recent ministers and secretaries of state. The service of some on the Labour front bench (and at the junior ministerial level) under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown will help reinforce this, but the length of time spent in Opposition will also underline the seriousness with which Labour will be taking its preparatory talks with senior Whitehall leaders. In addition to its manifesto planning the Labour party has also established a future legislation committee to help bring together its first King’s Speech which we be delivered within the first month of taking office.

At SEC Newgate, we prioritise routine engagement with civil servants as much as we do with all parties (and none); indeed a number of our account teams in the advocacy space are drawn from and have direct experience of working in the Civil Service, including some recent hires. Threading the needle between politics and the Whitehall policy machine is an important nexus for our clients to understand how to navigate, as is knowing how to influence the workings and output of government right up to and out the other side of elections. This time around, with an election year coinciding with those in the US and EU, there is much to play for!