Unearthing Labour’s secret vision for power 


With a narrowing of the opinion polls, cracks are again emerging in the Labour Party. One persistent criticism of Keir Starmer’s leadership has re-emerged: he is a leader with no vision for the country. 

But before we move on too quickly to controversial attack ads, the May elections and even the increasingly likely 2024 general election, it’s worth drawing attention back to a tentative vision already sketched by the Labour Party, that I think has the potential to still become the defining political project of the era. 

To find it, go back to Labour’s ‘missions’ announcement in February. At the time, much of the press coverage and debate focused on whether the five missions were too vague or whether they were the right ones. Yet this overlooked the much more exciting changes to the working of government, quietly sketched in the second half of a five page briefing document published on the day of Starmer’s speech. 

Under the heading ‘a new approach to governing’, the document argues that “the scale and cross-cutting nature of our missions require a sharp break from business-as-usual government”. It then goes on to set out six changes, which if enacted would prove a radical departure from our current state of affairs.

The first change, organising government around a shared vision, seeks to address a longstanding problem: the siloed nature of Whitehall. This isn’t new terrain: see New Labour’s dalliance with ‘joined-up government’.

But it’s absolutely necessary. Complex problems, which the missions are rightly trying to solve, are poorly served by Whitehall today. That’s because, by and large, Whitehall departments are organised around services, not challenges. The Department for Health administers the NHS; the Department for Education looks after schools. 

To illustrate why this doesn’t work, take obesity, probably the biggest public health challenge facing the country today. Tackling this effectively would require working across no fewer than at least ten government departments (by my count: DH&SC, DfE, Defra, DLUHC, DfT, DCMS, DWP, DSIT, HMT). Take it from a former civil servant: that isn’t going to happen. 

In response, Labour’s document suggests “this could mean…replacing some of the cabinet committees with new delivery focused cross-cutting mission boards”. This is clearly undeveloped, but could mean radical changes to the working of Whitehall. One option would be to introduce, to borrow Geoff Mulgan’s idea, ‘super ministers’, sitting above traditional Secretaries of State with more authority to work across government departmental silos. 

A more maximal option would be a total reorganisation of Whitehall, moving away from the current approach of structuring around services. Instead, one could imagine Whitehall organised around challenges or missions. Instead, Whitehall could consist of a number of different departments focusing each on a distinct mission; a department for economic growth, a department for crime reduction etc. 

The second change outlined in the paper includes “focusing on real-world impact” which the paper says “could be done by putting citizens centre stage from the onset”. Demos has written extensively about the need for a new, citizen-led approach to policy making. All our experience in public participation has led us to believe that two things are needed; first, making much better use of those with lived experience of specific issues; second, involving the wider public in democratic fora beyond elections, as a way of building legitimacy for decision making. 

Finally, and I think most excitingly, the paper calls for problems to be approached with “long-term, preventative approach”. Of course, prevention has been called for by politicians for what feels like lightyears; but as an upcoming Demos essay sets out (do come to our launch event later this month with Steve Reed, Shadow Justice Secretary!), we still haven’t got there. What excites me most about Labour’s treatment of prevention here is the focus on fixing financing: so often the barrier to the longer term approach needed to move upstream. 

Together, the six changes floated in the document are a bold, radical challenge to our current way of governing. Yet right now, I think more is needed to develop them into a cohesive vision for change. 

First, some of the changes feel part of a truly new governing paradigm, while others sound like hangovers from previous attempts to reform the state. The language and diagnosis around the need to rewire the state to tackle complex problems is to be much welcomed, and so too is the call to move away from a focus on outputs. Yet the call for a renewed focus on outcomes is flawed. In large parts of the public sector, we have been trying to move towards a more outcomes focused approach in recent decades with mixed results, as Toby Lowe has demonstrated. We need greater creativity than simply calling for government to focus more on the outcomes. 

Second, there are tensions between some of the changes called for. The document rightly notes that “government delivery too often focuses on a top down, target-led approach” and calls for significant devolution away from Westminster. Yet how this will mesh with national missions I think remains to be seen. What if newly empowered ‘local leaders’ don’t care for a Labour government’s national missions?  

Third, for this new approach to governing to really take off, it needs to be packaged up into a sum greater than its parts. At minimum, this will involve naming this new approach to governing; ideally something that can catch on (e.g. Cameron’s Big Society, Blair’s Third Way etc). My suggestion would be ‘humble government’: the idea that governments need to act with greater humility if problems are to be truly solved. This can weave together many different ideas: letting go and allowing local leaders to leave, putting citizens centre stage of policy making. For more on this idea, read our essay The Humble Policy Maker and check out Demos Helsinki’s fascinating work in this space.

So yes, some work still to do. But the fact that a political party, relatively close to power, is exploring them in the open genuinely excites me. Why? Too often politicians spend their time arguing about the ingredients of government – the policies – and less about the recipe – the process by which policies are made; but we all know the recipe is just as important as the ingredients. Here, a political party was setting out – in the open – a deep, considered critique of the current workings of government. That much should be commended.