Starmer should use powers the Tories will leave behind

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The writer is a political strategist at BCW communications and former political secretary to Tony Blair

“We are the masters now!” These words, attributed to Sir Hartley Shawcross, attorney-general in Clement Attlee’s 1945 Labour government, were used by political opponents to characterise the attitude of Labour ministers backed by a landslide.

Shawcross himself claimed to have said something slightly less inflammatory, but the truth was that a landslide UK electoral victory had given a transformative energy to Labour’s first majority government. From nationalisation through the creation of the welfare state to independence for India and partition, the Attlee government reshaped the political landscape.

With opinion polls pointing to a sizeable Labour majority in the next general election, party leader Sir Keir Starmer and his team have been anxious to avoid any language as incautious as that apparently used by Shawcross. Nothing, they repeat, must be taken for granted.

Yet it’s wise to prepare for all eventualities, so Labour should carefully examine the full range of powers and conventions it would inherit in the event of an election victory. And there have been many moves to strengthen the executive over the past 14 years. Labour should exploit them.

With a delicious irony, the crucial vehicle for any incoming Labour government to use is a gift of Brexit: the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Act of 2023. Amid all the rhetoric about Brexit “freedoms” and opportunities, this was, in reality, a move to substantially increase ministerial power. Large swaths of law can now be changed by secondary legislation, avoiding the demands of full parliamentary scrutiny.

In some policy areas, this ability is subject to a sunset clause and only runs until the middle of 2026. But even that gives great powers to cabinet ministers in a hurry — such as deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner, who has reforms she wishes to make to housing, planning and employment rights that would take years under normal conventions.

It could be that Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg and Lord David Frost, who oversaw critical parts of the REUL Act, end up as godparents to some of the most radical and controversial policies an incoming Labour government would want to introduce.

And it doesn’t stop there. In many other areas a new government has the ability to adapt precedent. Take government communications: most departments use social media in ways that push the boundaries of political campaigning and test advertising guidelines to the limits.

Starmer and his team must eschew any hair-shirt instincts and lean into this precedent. Labour should take government communications to the next level. Departments already specify brand guidelines for organisations they fund. That approach could be more deeply co-ordinated if the government were to follow the example of large corporations and appoint a chief client officer — with the client, in this case, being the British people. Starmer is often criticised for not being clear about what he stands for. Beefed-up government comms would be a punchy answer to that critique.

Similarly, despite the ministerial code saying that “cabinet ministers may each appoint up to two special advisers”, half of the current cabinet have four or five. Rather than condemning “spadflation”, Labour should regularise this, giving much more political firepower to a new cabinet that will be tackling challenges on multiple fronts.

The danger for any incoming government, particularly in an era of constrained public finances, is that they “hit the ground reviewing”. Labour can use the powers the Conservative government has amassed and make change happen faster than voters and commentators expect.

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