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A year of choice – for voters and politicians alike

We have entered, as Keir Starmer put it last week in his now-traditional early January speech, “a year of choice”. Allowing him a little poetic licence (technically, the next general election could be held as late as 28 January 2025) he is right that this is a huge year for British democracy. And two features of our political system make moments like this especially challenging for opposition parties.

First, the decision on when to hold an election (generally) rests with the sitting government. Both main parties have political reasons for insisting it will be on a certain date. Labour has to say the vote will be in May, to build a narrative that if it is any later then Rishi Sunak has “bottled it” and also to ensure its own people are ready for any eventuality. Sunak’s insistence that the election will be in the second half of 2024, on the other hand, is an attempt to neutralise that Labour attack line, while his caveat that this is just a “working assumption” leaves the door open to going earlier should he wish. Look past all that shadowboxing and the central truth remains: the decision rests with the Conservatives, and Labour has to live with the uncertainty.

Second, there is virtually no gap between winning power and exercising it. In the US, whoever wins the presidential election on 5 November this year will have until 20 January 2025 to prepare for their inauguration and the actual business of government. Here, the leader of the victorious party will basically have to head from the results party to Buckingham Palace and on to 10 Downing Street to start work. Alastair Campbell’s diary entry for 1 May 1997 gives some sense of what a whiplash-inducing moment that is: “Imagine preparing for a new job by working flat out travelling the country for six weeks and then go a few nights without sleep”.

There is a chance, then, that on the morning of 3 May members of the no-longer-shadow Cabinet have to walk into Whitehall departments and issue tens of thousands of civil servants with instructions as to what they want done. As Cath Haddon at the Institute for Government has pointed out when launching their excellent new report on preparing for government, only three of these people have been Secretaries of State before – and that doesn’t include the would-be Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister or Chancellor of the Exchequer.

That means this is a year of choice not just for the electorate but for the politicians themselves. What will an incoming government prioritise? How will it change the system it inherits? How will lofty manifesto promises be delivered in practice? 

For Keir Starmer’s Labour, the promises are indeed lofty. The party’s five national missions are major policy objectives in their own right, and they also assume a fundamentally different way of governing the country. Starmer has also spoken of a far-reaching devolution agenda, implied in his reference yesterday to “the moment when power is taken out of Tory hands and given, not to me, but to you”. All of which has to be delivered in the context of excruciatingly tight public finances.

These types of challenge – making mission-based government a reality, delivering meaningful devolution and unlocking the investment needed for national renewal – are at the heart of FGF’s work. We will be publishing reports on all of them throughout 2024. First up will be a closer look at the transition into power: what we can learn from progressive parties in both the US and Australia as they came took office in recent years, and a deep dive into the last change of governing party here in the UK, back in 2010.

Keir Starmer said yesterday that he came into politics “to get things done”. If that’s the case, he’s going to need to ensure that enough of his party’s resources resist being sucked into the campaign – as essential as that is to winning power – and focus instead on the hard intellectual work required to wield that power effectively and progressively when the time comes. Especially as that time could be as little as four months from now.