Working to make government more effective

Report

Preparing for government: How the official opposition should ready itself for power

Rishi Sunak has to call a general election by 17 December.

10 Downing Street in London

For both the 1997 and 2010 elections, access talks began at least 16 months before the end of the parliament. This time Labour will have at most 12 months, and possibly fewer. While Labour has the advantage of three shadow ministers having previously run government departments – no shadow minister had done so in 1997 – the talks with the civil service are a crucial part of preparing for the possibility of government.  

This report sets out key lessons for how any opposition party should use the final 12 months (or fewer) to prepare for government. In the final months before an election, there is pressure to put everything into campaigning – and to avoid looking complacent about victory. But drawing on interviews with former ministers, senior civil servants and former political and special advisers, the report shows that detailed preparation for government is critical in the UK – where, unlike almost any other country, opposition parties almost always transition into power overnight. Oppositions that prepare are better at governing, particularly in the crucial early years of a parliament.  

For Labour to best use this critical period to prepare, the report’s recommendations include: 

  • Keir Starmer and his team finalising a clear set of policy priorities – and brokering the necessary trade-offs between them – as well as the legislation needed in a first King’s Speech within weeks of taking power.  
  • Shadow teams working out what level of detail they will share with the civil service and when during talks – building agreement now for what will (and will not) be discussed will help focus minds.  
  • Labour working with the Cabinet Office to arrange cross-cutting talks, as Labour’s missions are not confined neatly within a single department’s brief.
  • Labour planning what machinery of government changes are necessary to support cross-government missions, with Starmer and chief of staff Sue Gray planning now for how they would restructure the centre of government.
  • Avoiding any more shadow cabinet reshuffles before the election and identifying a list of planned core special adviser appointments prior to concluding access talks discussions  

General election: How should an opposition prepare for government?

With a general election at most a year away, Wes Ball, Baroness Fall and Lord Macpherson discuss how opposition parties can prepare for government.

Watch the event
Members of the Labour shadow cabinet walking

Related content

22 JAN 2024 Report

Whitehall Monitor 2024

Our annual, data-based assessment of the UK civil service, how it has changed and performed over the past year, and its priorities for the future.