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The parties should focus on substance as well as sales ahead of the election

Election fever is hotting up in the aftermath of the local elections.

A composite image of Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer on stage at the Conservative and Labour party conferences.
The UK is expected to go to the polls in the second half of 2024.

Election fever is hotting up in the aftermath of the local elections. Political stunts such as the defection of Conservative MPs Dan Poulter and Natalie Elphicke to the Labour Party provide short-term headlines, but the parties need to focus on substance as well as sales if they want voters to reward them in the forthcoming general election. The IfG expert team set out how

Will Rishi Sunak show that a tail end of a government can still get things done?

If Rishi Sunak wants them, he has six (or even eight) months left to govern the country before he calls an election. But while there are sparks of activity, like the Rwanda legislation and smoking ban, some of his predecessors have made much more use of this in-between time. 

Rishi Sunak speaks during a press conference in Downing Street, London, after he saw the Safety of Rwanda Bill pass its third reading in the House of Commons.
Prime minister Rishi Sunak has six or even eight months left to govern the country.

Theresa May legislated for climate change targets in her purple patch, but the best recent example is Gordon Brown before the 2010 election. In his last few months in office, the government passed important constitutional legislation, got the Equality Act 2010 through parliament, made changes to Ofcom and Ofgem’s remits through a Digital Communications Act and Energy Act, and reformed bribery law, special educational needs in schools, the response to domestic violence and the rules on how DNA testing should be used. More performatively, Brown legislated in a Fiscal Responsibility Act to try to lock in future governments to his fiscal rules. 

Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown calls for questions during his monthly press conference at 10 Downing Street in London in 2009.
Gordon Brown's activity in the year before the 2010 election made incremental changes to the country and helped consolidate the Blair/Brown era.

None of these kept Brown in office, or even formed much of his top line arguments at the 2010 election. But whether you agree with the policies or not, they made incremental changes to the country, helped consolidate the Blair/Brown era and gave a lethargic government more momentum. Sunak could do worse than to imitate his approach. 

Can Keir Starmer use local election momentum to stay focused on preparation for government?  

After a strong set of local election results for Labour, the pressure to show no complacency and stay focused on winning will be intense. Even without a summer election, time spent campaigning will increase as the final deadline for a general election draws closer. But Starmer should continue to combine the need to focus on the politics and campaigning with preparing for government.

The results only underline the potential transition and the need for Labour to be ready to make the most of it. There is still space for policy development – particularly around the legislation and early announcements that will sit alongside core priorities. And the moment for any machinery or other changes needed to deliver missions will be early – so the preparation is needed now.  

The shift from opposition to government is always intense – the more so for a party that has been in opposition and campaigning mode for well over a decade. But to meet the expectation that will accompany a change in government, a focus on preparing for power – as well as winning it – should remain at the core of Labour’s work over the coming months. 

Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer (right) celebrates with newly elected Mayor of West Midlands Richard Parker at the International Convention Centre in Birmingham.

Keir Starmer (right) celebrates the election of Richard Parker (left) as mayor of the West Midlands. Parker unseated Conservative incumbent mayor Andy Street.

Have preparations for the next spending review got underway? 

One issue that will increasingly grab the headlines over the course of the next year is the issue of government spending beyond March 2025, at which point the plans laid out by the previous spending review run out. All we have to go on beyond that point are some ‘pencilled in’ overall numbers for public spending but – as we have repeatedly pointed out – these are implausible in the sense that they aren’t consistent with promises made by both main parties.  

As our recent report outlines, one of the first tasks facing whoever wins the elections will be to lay out spending plans for at least the year 2025/26. They should do so by December to avoid a cliff edge in government funding – this will only be possible if the election is held this year, and even if this is the case there may only be a few weeks to complete the process.   

Rishi Sunak holding the Spending Review 2020.
The next general election will be held closer to the point at which government departments’ budgets expire than at any time in over 40 years.

At this point, or perhaps at a later multi-year spending review (which should conclude in the second half of 2025), the next government will also face something of a fiscal reckoning when it has to align its plans for overall spending with an ambitious agenda for government, wafer-thin room for manoeuvre against its fiscal rules, and an apparent resistance from both major parties to any significant tax rises.  

A compressed fiscal timetable and a series of difficult and consequential fiscal choices all point the importance of preparation now. The civil service should be given the space and resource to lay the groundwork for whoever wins the election while politicians preparing for government must be getting to grips with the detail of departmental budgets as well as campaigning for the election.

Do Sunak or Starmer have a plan for a devolution reset? 

Last Thursday was the biggest moment in England’s unfolding devolution story, with metro mayors elected across the country’s largest urban regions. The 12 mayors now in office – plus four being created in 2025 – will control £30bn or more of public spending and will form a powerful coalition making the case to the next government for more powers and investment.

Managing the relationship with the mayors will be a challenging task for whoever is prime minister this time next year, but getting devolution right could be key to tackling the economic underperformance of England’s cities and regions away from London.

Devolution has already empowered local leaders to take control of key economic levers – such as transport, skills and housing budgets. But the job is half done at best, and the next government has the opportunity to put in place a long-term devolution settlement for England as a whole.

Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham views the 'Bee Network' buses
Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham views the 'Bee Network' buses. Devolution has already empowered local leaders to take control of key economic levers – such as transport.

As a new Institute for Government report argues, the government formed after the general election should extend devolution to all of England’s remaining large urban areas, including Portsmouth, Reading and Stoke. It should expand the current ‘trailblazer’ deals on offer to Greater Manchester and West Midlands, for instance by including control of employment support funding, and offer similar deals to other places including the new North East mayoralty.

As devolution is deepened, further attention should also be paid to governance and accountability issues. Investment is needed in new scrutiny mechanisms, data science and analytical capability, and policy evaluation exercises so places can learn from each other about what works. Finally, devolution should be given a firmer constitutional footing: for instance, the prime minister should hold an annual summit with all metro mayors to  make clear that they are key strategic partners of government. 

How the next government should complete the job of English devolution

The English devolution agenda is in need of a reset. Our report puts forward 30 proposals – which can and should be implemented over the next five years – to complete a “job half done” with a new deal for England.

Read the report
The Liverpool skyline at dawn

The parties should start now to address ethical standards

As well as a broadly successful set of results for Labour, one of the themes to come out of the local elections was general lack of engagement in politics and distrust of politicians, including those from the big two parties. Our recent report found that over a quarter of voters (26%) would change their vote at the next general election if their preferred party’s candidate had been found to have broken ethical rules. While this may not have been the deciding factor in local voting patterns, it is clear that come the general election, ethical behaviour is a factor in how people decide their vote.

In the run-up to the election, we will be looking to see what the parties commit to on improving improve ethical standards in government should they be elected. Labour’s Nick Thomas-Symonds told us that his party would make ethics and standards a priority, and committed to implementing the IfG’s recommendation for the prime minister’s adviser to be able to investigate potential breaches of the ministerial code without needing the PM’s permission. For their part, the Conservatives made some commitments on the topic last year, though many are yet to be implemented. Next week we’ll hear from Lucy Powell about how Labour will improve how parliament works.

Watch our event on ethical standards

It is clear that ethical standards in politics is an important topic ahead of the election. It may not be as headline-grabbing as the performance of public services, as divisive as immigration, or as important to people’s lives as the economy. But it matters, and whoever wins the general election an start putting in place the plans that would show they are taking this issue seriously.

Keynote speech: Lucy Powell MP, Shadow Leader of the Commons

Join us on Tuesday 14 May when Lucy Powell will set out how a Labour government would approach parliament, the legislative process and the role of MPs.

Register to attend
Lucy Powell MP, Shadow Commons Leader, on stage at the Labour Party Conference.

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