Into Power – Lessons from Labour’s US and Australian sister parties

Transitions from opposition to government are rare in British politics, with power changing hands just twice in the last 40 years. Should Labour win the next election as polls widely predict, the party will have been out of power for at least 14 years, and will not have managed a transition for more than 27. If the opposition is to make the move into government as effective as possible, setting itself up to govern well and deliver on its campaign promises, then there is value in looking at what can be learned from recent comparable experiences elsewhere.

Coming into power in 2020 and 2022 respectively, the US Democrats and Australian Labor offer two recent examples of conservative-to-progressive transitions. Our new report Into Power 01: Lessons from Australia and the United States draws on detailed conversations with senior figures from both parties, setting out recommendations for opposition parties here in the UK ahead of this year’s general election and beyond.

Transition is political.

Transition is not an administrative task with a political flavour. It is an inherently political task. Preparing well for assuming power is an essential precursor to being able to deliver the political programme which an opposition party has spent years developing and refining.

      1. It all starts with the leader. The leader should take the time to consider what sort of government he or she wants to lead – posing and answering specific questions about this, as Australian Labor leaders have done ahead of recent elections – to give the transition team a clear mandate on which to deliver.
      2. Planning for early milestones is vital. This means thinking about not only the first 100 days, but the first 96 hours – when the government will be keen to make its mark, but will also be at its most inexperienced. As one of our Australian interviewees put it: The first 96 hours can create momentum and frame a new administration; conversely, a tentative and shambling government will spend months recovering from a rocky first week…” 

    Transition is about people. 

    People – their personalities, skills, experience, working styles – are pivotal to whether or not a transition is successful. The transition process is defined by the people running it, the people leading the party it is being prepared for and the experienced people that are available in that party to inform the planning.

        1. Support existing shadow ministers and advisors as they prepare to move into government. Anthony Albanese’s team in Australia in 2022 sought to formalise the process of recruitment, induction, training and ongoing mentoring, so as to position their new cabinet to govern as effectively as possible right from the start – and to keep up the support with ongoing mentoring once they had taken office.
        2. Recruit for new roles openly and with a focus on diversity. A progressive opposition should think creatively about establishing an open and transparent appointments process, to demonstrate a break with the incumbent government and to maximise the prospect of hiring the best and most diverse cadre of people into new positions. The US’s use of ‘talent banks’ to help this process is something British parties could learn from in the long-term.

      Getting the transition process right is essential to success.

      If an opposition is to set itself up to govern well after winning power, it must set clearly defined objectives for the process of transition and allocate the resources needed to deliver them. This is even more important when the opposition has ambitions to change the fundamental nature of governing, as Labour does with its mission-driven approach.

          1. Start as you mean to go on: Labour is not merely proposing new policies but a fundamentally new way of governing. On first taking the reins of power, the party will have a narrow window of opportunity in which to embed its ‘mission-driven’ approach in departmental and civil service thinking. Looking to Joe Biden’s four ‘cross-cuts’ for his incoming administration – Covid, economic recovery, equity and climate change – could provide a model for Keir Starmer’s five missions.
          2. Establish a ‘beachhead’. The transition team should consider where it might be possible and beneficial to learn from the US system and create ‘beachhead’ teams of temporary appointees, who can help the new administration get to work quickly and lay the foundations for longer-term success.

        First impressions count, in politics as much as any other walk of life. Changes in governing party are rare in the UK and the months immediately before and after an election must be used as effectively as possible if a new administration is to make good on the commitments it has made during the election campaign. The recent experiences of progressive parties in both Washington and Canberra provide some valuable lessons that their counterparts here in the UK could benefit from importing into their own preparations today.