26 September 2016

The Institute for Government today published 15 new interviews with former Labour ministers as part of its Ministers Reflect project. As the action kicks off at the Labour Party Conference, Nicola Hughes looks at what they tell us.

When we launched ‘Ministers Reflect’, an archive of interviews with former ministers about what it’s really like in the corridors of power, we started by interviewing ministers who were in power since 2010.

Today we’ve added 15 interviews with ministers from the last Labour government, including former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, Home Secretary and Chief Whip Jacqui Smith, Children’s Secretary and former Treasury spad Ed Balls, and Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt.

Given the upheaval in the Labour Party at the moment, some interviewees longed for the days of a big majority and a long stint in government: “There are lots of frustrations in government,” said former Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell, “but there is nothing as frustrating as being out of government!”

While the early popularity of Tony Blair and the party’s majority in the House made governing rather easier for Labour than their Coalition counterparts, some like Schools Minister Jim Knight still spent a lot of time “trying to keep rebellious Labour backbenchers like Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell at bay.”

Three other main points of context stood out:

Labour ministers were not well prepared for the job

One of the things our Coalition interviewees – particularly Liberal Democrats – told us was that they were unprepared for the shift from opposition to government, and that they had little training in office. It was similar for Labour – “…you sank or you swam", said Ben Bradshaw, who became a minister in 2001. Back in 1997, very few members of Blair’s first frontbench had prior experience of government, including the Prime Minister himself. This caused some teething problems, for example, in understanding Whitehall dynamics and processes.

There had been some attempts at pre-election preparation for government in 1997, but as Tessa Jowell explained, these could not help ministers fully grasp the realities of office: “…I can’t engage with this too much because (a) we might not win the election and (b) if we win the election, I might not be a minister at all and therefore I will have invested so much in this and it will come to nothing.”

Patricia Hewitt, who had helped with an induction course, felt that “what was really depressing was the Shadow Cabinet really didn’t feel they needed any training or development.”

Despite these somewhat ambivalent responses to initial attempts at training, John Healey made the case for a better learning and development offer for ministers: “Why should it be impossible in any system? These are specific roles, with responsibilities set out clearly, a number of people who have done the job beforehand, a rather imprecise management structure, it has to be said, inevitably, but of course it can. And it should.”

Labour ministers were reshuffled a lot

The breadth of roles that ministers, particularly junior ministers, held in the Labour years was striking. Reshuffles were much less frequent in the Cameron years, and such stability may be a good thing for policy implementation and continuity. Interviewee Stephen Timms, for example, had 12 jobs over the 13-year period – including four different roles at HM Treasury: “…it is a bit of a nightmare…”, he said.

Were such frequent changes a problem? Some ministers enjoyed seeing how a range of departments worked, and felt no need to specialise. For individuals, moves could be “stimulating… whatever field you’re in, you can learn it up within a few weeks.”

On the other hand, ministers found it hard to make an impact in a short amount of time and as Jacqui Smith explained, became impatient: “…you think to yourself, ‘I’m only going to have two years in this job, I want to get on with it.’ And then you are impatient and that I suspect creates a bit of conflict between the civil servant who wants to do the policy right and the minister who wants to get it done in the time that they are going to be there and have the impact.”

The apparent randomness of ministerial moves could also be frustrating; Jim Knight noted the lack of “… any kind of sense of managing the talent properly and really aligning people and their skills and strengths to where they’d be best deployed.”

Blair, Brown and the financial crisis dominated the final years

Much has been written of the tensions between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair in the run-up to 2007; unsurprisingly, ministers reflected on how these affected departments. Jack Straw said: “Treasury, they were tricky. I felt that Gordon had a sort of, a slightly Manichean view of the world about departments he wanted to favour and departments he didn’t. Which was I think in retrospect something to do with… well they were departments that Tony favoured.”

The change of prime minister in 2007 meant new policy direction but also a change of style for ministers, (“…to suddenly move away from not having to worry about two masters to only one was a really big change”). For example the ‘delivery stocktakes’ with ministers that Blair had instituted at No10 were dropped. Liam Byrne thought it took “six or seven months” to adapt to Brown’s style of government; government is going through a similar adjustment process now as Theresa May settles in.

The Brown years were dominated by the global banking crisis and subsequent economic crash, which understandably meant a big change of gear for ministers: “within six months we were doing emergency legislation and suspending competition law and doing all sorts of things that were quite policy intensive.” So-called GOATs were drafted in to help – including businessmen Lord Davies on trade and investment and Lord Myners in the Treasury, who was “confronted with a single item agenda: the banking system.”

Economic credibility still dogs Labour today, so it is not surprising that the crash, and how they managed it, was at the front of interviewees’ minds.

Beyond the crash there was a wider sense that the government was running out of energy towards the end of 13 years. Ed Balls commented: “…it’s always easier to be a minister at the beginning of a government... In ’97, you know, we were able to shape the narrative and by the time I was a secretary of state, and after the ‘election which wasn’t called’, we were always the Government on the back foot of the narrative. And there was this massive financial crisis going on, so the extent of the headwinds around you, making it hard for you to prosecute your policy agenda and narrative, is just frustrating.”

This unique, cross-government perspective shows that the nature of being a minister and the challenges that come with it cut across the political spectrum – time management, prioritising your efforts, the challenges and rewards of working with the Civil Service. It also shows how important context, relationships and style of government can be for the job of being a minister.

Further information

There are many more fascinating insights into the Labour years in these interviews. You can read all the transcripts in full, and let us know what you think, on the Ministers Reflect website. We’ll be publishing more analysis, as well as adding new transcripts to the archive, over the autumn.