Lessons in Power: What can the new Labour government learn from the last one?

9 July 2024

Michael Jacobs - Professor of Political Economy, Department of Politics & International Relations and SPERI

Mems Ayinla - Director of Student Influence at Sheffield Students' Union

A brand new podcast series from 'SPERI Presents...' invites former advisors and ministers from the 1997-2010 Labour governments to reflect on lessons for Starmer and his Cabinet. Listen on Spotify.

As the members of the new British Cabinet walked up Downing St and entered No 10 on the Saturday morning after the election, you could see the excitement they were feeling. Like their first day at secondary school, only somewhat more momentous, they were clearly thinking: what will it be like? How will I know where to go, what I’m meant to do? I’ve got all these plans… 

How does a new government actually go about implementing the programme it has prepared in opposition? Labour has entered office with a mountainous in-tray already on the desk: a collapsing NHS with doctors on strike; several local authorities and universities (and Thames Water) on the verge of bankruptcy; overflowing prisons; war in Ukraine and Gaza. It wants to set up a new publicly-owned energy company and a sovereign wealth fund; change planning law; establish a new childcare system; reform the House of Lords (though only after packing it with Labour peers first in order to get its legislation through). Where does it start? 

The new government is not short of advice on that front. There are the media commentators, of course, though most of them can be safely ignored (especially the Mail and the Telegraph). More interesting are those who worked in the last Labour government, from 1997-2010 under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Most of the ministers and advisers from that era are still around – indeed some of them are in the new Cabinet (Ed Miliband, Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper were all Cabinet ministers under Brown, and others such as John Healey and Angela Smith were junior ministers.) So the new team have plenty of people they can turn to who know how to run a government: the pitfalls and problems, the keys to success and the trapdoors to avoid. 

Which made us think: why not get those people to tell us all how government really works? To offer their advice to the new Labour team in public, not just in private?

And so we have recorded a new podcast series under the ‘SPERI Presents’ banner, in which ministers and advisers from the last Labour government recall their experiences and offer suggestions to the new incumbents. Lessons in Power: What can the new Labour government learn from the last one? begins on 10 July and runs for nine episodes, to be released in batches over the next month. 

The series is presented by the two of us, which we thought would make for a nice contrast in perspective. Michael was himself a special adviser in the Blair and Brown governments, first at the Treasury and then at No 10. So he brings his own experience and memories of the period to bear. Mems, by contrast, was just two years old in 1997. But she actually experienced the Labour government herself, as a baby using its Sure Start early years provision and then attending a newly built academy school in Kent. (Her mum turns out to be something of a heroine of the series: a supporter of New Labour not as a matter of political philosophy, but having experienced the improvements it brought to her life.) Mems later became a civil servant, so has seen government and Parliament up close under the Conservatives. 

The first episode features Stewart Wood, Brown’s foreign policy adviser at No 10. After a bit of banter with Michael about whether Brown ever threw anything at either of them, Wood describes the peculiar nature of foreign policy. Having been Chancellor for ten years, Brown was very action-oriented. Travelling to his first meeting as PM with German leader Angela Merkel, he was dismayed to be told by the Foreign Office diplomats that the meeting was just ‘a getting-to-know-you’ occasion. What was the point of that? What were they going to agree to do? But as Wood says, personal relationships in foreign policy are actually very important: when Brown needed the rest of the world to get behind his plan to rescue the global economy after the financial crash in 2009, he relied on those relationships to persuade other leaders. 

The second episode of the series is a double act. We brought into the studio Sally Morgan, who was Tony Blair’s Political Secretary from 1997-2005, and Gavin Kelly, Gordon Brown’s Deputy Chief of Staff from 2007-10. These were the people responsible for ‘managing’ the Prime Minister and No 10, organising the system to achieve what the PM wanted, and making sure he focused on the things that mattered. The conversation turned out to be both enlightening and funny. Blair and Brown were very different personalities, and their priorities in government likewise. But both faced the insatiable demands of 24 hour news media. Morgan and Kelly tried many different approaches to making the system work for them, and their advice to the team around Keir Starmer is well worth a listen. 

Third up in the series is David Blunkett, Blair’s Home Secretary from 2001-04. He is candid about the pathologies of the Home Office, which so often ‘hovers above problems rather than trying to solve them’ and which at times can be completely dysfunctional, not to say racist. He managed to reform parts of it, but not others, and he offers some careful words of advice to Yvette Cooper, who now holds the post. The conversation focuses especially on how to reform immigration and asylum policy, which preoccupied Blunkett in his time, and looks likely to dominate Cooper’s. 

Later episodes are equally full of insight and anecdote. Clare Short, who was Development Secretary under Tony Blair, expresses her views on British foreign policy with the same trenchant personality she had as an MP. (She has not become any more emollient out of office.) Nick Pearce, head of the No 10 Policy Unit under Brown, offers thoughtful recollections on how New Labour tried to reform public services, and the different challenges facing the government today, with so much less money to spend. Geoff Mulgan, head of policy and strategy under Blair, provides a whole series of recommendations on public policy innovations from around the world on which the government could draw. Carey Oppenheim, No 10 adviser under Blair, discusses early years and anti-poverty policy, and Meg Russell, adviser to Blair’s Leader of the House Robin Cook, explains how Parliamentary democracy can – and perhaps cannot – be reformed. The series ends with Michael himself stepping into the interviewee’s chair, discussing the parallels and contrasts between the Blair and Brown governments’ approach to tackling climate change, and those facing Keir Starmer and Ed Miliband today. 

We learned a lot from these conversations. We hope the same will be true of the podcast audience. And maybe the government will listen in, too. 

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