29 November 2011

Conservative MP Nick Boles told an Institute for Government audience on Monday about travelling to the US in 2008 during the early stages of the preparations for the 2010 General Election. Meeting with senior Democrats overseeing the transition, he found that they had around 500 people working on various aspects of Obama's preparation for government. At around the same time, the Conservatives had seven.

The US transition is a very different process, involving a massive scale of personnel change since political appointees occupy many of the posts held in the UK by the permanent Civil Service. But the relative small scale and sometimes ad hoc nature of UK opposition preparations would surprise many on the other side of the Atlantic. Both are, however, attempting to translate opposition policies into practice. For the UK, this leaves important questions hanging: what kind of resources should Oppositions have for developing people and policy, and what kind of preparation is appropriate to Opposition?

As the Institute’s recent Transitions; Lessons Learned discussed, the UK system places great emphasis on pre-election preparation, in particular of policies, but doesn’t provide the resources to realise it. Most parties attempt to have some concrete plans, well developed and as close to being ready to roll out as they could manage – for the Conservatives this included Education and the Academies Bill. But it is not just a case of having some policies ready to go. Government brings any number of unanticipated decision making challenges and a need for policies in areas that were not on the agenda pre-election. Even plans that seem advanced can face implementation problems that require access to the resources, information, and knowledge that government brings.

Oppositions have little capacity to go about the business of holding the current government to account, and building their case to the electorate as an alternative government, let alone for detailed policymaking. Parties receive a Policy Development Grant from the Electoral Commission, and they have other state funding, but these can be easily diverted to day-to-day campaigning and do not provide the same kinds of resource – in expertise and scale – as government has.

Adjusting to office and the pressures of decision making means that preparing those who would take policies into government is also important and this was another factor in 2010. Matt Tee, former Permanent Secretary of Communications and another of Monday’s panel, spoke of the difficult adjustment that new ministers made, even in understanding the scale of government. There were questions along the lines of ‘what do they all do’ towards parts of the Civil Service. At the same time, Tee recalled, politicians had to throw off the mindset of opposition, and appreciate the range of tools available beyond the press release.

As the report discussed, the continuity of ministers taking up posts in the areas they shadowed can make a big difference. This was another area that Boles and Francis Maude’s implementation team worked on. David Laws acknowledged at the event that preparing people was an aspect the Lib Dems would take more interest in at future elections.

Opposition is very different from government – in resources especially, but also in what they are trying to do. Oppositions can do more during that time with the resources they have, to try to ensure they are as effective as possible when they get into government. They also need to think about how they prepare themselves, so that they can make the best job of translating these plans into the outcomes they desire. Whatever happens in the next few years, at the next election all three main parties will have a cohort with experience of governing. They would do well to make the best use of that, and ensure they do not lose sight of lessons exposed in the aftermath of 2010.