Amid the rows buffeting the Labour Party over recent months, it’s been easy to miss a significant trend going on in the background: behind the scenes, the party is slowly but surely preparing for government.
John McDonnell has been in the lead in this process, supported by a wider milieu of academics, thinkers, advisers and activists. That’s why, in Liverpool next week, he and his Shadow Treasury Team – alongside events over the road at The World Transformed – will be the ones to watch for clues on what a Labour government would actually look like.
The general election result last year took the pundits by surprise, but equally civil servants and the Opposition: in comparison with 2015, relatively little time was spent on official ‘access talks’ where Whitehall opens its books to shadow counterparts.
Now, things are different. Respected former Cabinet Secretary Lord Kerslake has even been drafted in to coordinate delivery plans across the shadow cabinet.
Policies which were previously aspirations are being fleshed out in a new level of detail, like the National Investment Bank, where an expert working group is hammering out the institution’s planned aims, governance and management structures.
One side effect of Labour positioning itself as a government in waiting is greater scrutiny. Plans announced by McDonnell at TUC Conference last week for employee ownership funds – closely echoing the IPPR’s Commission on Economic Justice report – prompted questions from business groups on how this would work in practice.
In many areas of economic policy, Corbyn’s Labour’s has re-purposed and built on policies which had been in place under Ed Miliband. Indeed, Corbyn’s ‘build it in Britain’ speech to the EEF in July reads remarkably similarly to one given by his predecessor to the same audience over six years previously in March 2012.
What the Labour frontbench have found trickier – as last week’s announcement showed – is putting forward new, workable policies which go further in rewiring the fundamental structures of the UK economy: a long-cherished goal of Corbyn and McDonnell’s political tradition.
Successfully turning this radicalism into action would mean a very different kind of government from those which have come before.
What does this mean for firms looking to engage with the party? The sheer volume of policies it has already committed to deliver – high-profile nationalisations, a National Education Service, £250bn in infrastructure spending – mean it would enter government with a lengthy and challenging to do list which would frighten even the most bright eyed and bushy tailed of civil servants.
An incoming Labour-led government would be forced to prioritise quickly, and across a whole host of sectors would need to work with the grain of existing structures. John McDonnell has explicitly recognised this, launching a “cup of tea offensive” (no prawn cocktails here) and calling for a “new start” with industry leaders. In practice, this means pragmatic, businesslike conversations and relationships.
So as Labour seeks to translate its policies into workable plans for government there’s an opportunity to engage, even for those who don’t agree with McDonnell’s conviction that the “government will fall apart in the next six months”.
As the political engine room of a future Labour government, those seeking to work with the party will be beating a path to the Shadow Chancellor and his team and looking for insight on what makes them tick.
Inevitably, all eyes will be trained on the Shadow Chancellor on Monday lunchtime as he gives his speech – with its carefully-orchestrated clap lines for the audience in the hall and news lines for the afternoon bulletins. But it’s also worth keeping an eye on his four appearances The World Transformed (notably, he’s on the bill there every day), the less organised and admittedly more exhilarating ‘politics, arts and music festival’ over the road.
Understanding where McDonnell’s politics draw their energy – and how he plans to marry this radical tradition with the ruthless pragmatism of actually being in office – is critical to preparing for a future Labour government.