Illustration by Steve Caplin

Five rules for governing

Use your power, bring back politics, extend your wings, rebuild your base — and govern in poetry


This article is taken from the July 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Congratulations! You made it. Glad you took my, “Five Rules for Ruling” (Critic, April 2020) to heart when you sorted out the Labour Party! Now you’re in No 10, it’s time for the Five Rules for Governing — because governing isn’t the same as campaigning. It has a different rhythm. You have to win the electoral cycle not the news cycle.

Use your power

You’re in charge — make it count. Prime Minister means exactly what it says — first. That’s why you’re First Lord of the Treasury, after all. You have created a great team in your cabinet — but they are your team and they would not be there without you. Back when you stood for leader none of them thought this was a winnable election — if they had they would have stood. You took the Labour party from 1983 to 1997 in one term — and on your own. Even Tony had the work of John Smith and Neil Kinnock to build on. And you have surpassed him. Who Dares Wins — you dared, you won. Now use your power.

You have your own agenda — such as halving the violence against women and girls. Don’t let anything, not even the fiscal rules, get in the way of delivering that agenda. You’ve replaced a politics of protest with a politics of power. But power without purpose is as futile as being a party of protest. Campaigning techniques — however good — are only ever a means to an end. 

That’s why you have to drive the missions. You can’t outsource them either to the civil service or to anyone else in the cabinet. They are a definitive break with neoliberal governance and will be a shock to the system. Central and local government have become so used to outsourcing and contracting out. Teachers, nurses and doctors are sick of having reforms inflicted on them. Missions done correctly are about transformation. That should be a liberation for all the public servants who have been depressed and demoralised by a decade of decline. 

Politics is back

Remember, the days of message discipline though fear of deselection are over — every member of the PLP has their own mandate now. You may know that without your successful leadership and the ruthlessly executed plan, Labour wouldn’t have won a landslide and many of the colleagues wouldn’t be here. But they are here, and they represent places which they feel they won and know they have to represent. And a passion for place is crucial — align it with your agendas. Make local MPs advocates for the extension of devolution. If “nothing for us, without us” is truly a watchword then the colleagues can be your advocates in local areas — and your eyes and ears too.

Keep talking — and listening — to them. Every conversation is potentially a focus group of one. And keep that hour after PMQs sacrosanct for seeing them. Your PPS and Political Director will always have people who they know need to see you. And you never now who might be brought to see you — I remember Tony’s surprise, and pleasure, when I brought Shakira in to see him one Wednesday lunchtime.

There will be hundreds of new MPs, not just new to government but new to the House. Give them tasks to do, or you’ll find the truth in the adage about what happens to idle hands. 

Of course, there will be a lot of ambition on the backbench too. Some of them may want to be leader one day — that’s not an ignoble ambition. But first you have to see how the shadow cabinet perform once they are secretaries of state — and how the junior ministers perform. It is an iron law of politics that performance in opposition doesn’t tell you how good a minister a politician will be. In opposition you wake up every morning thinking about what you will say; in government you wake up every day thinking about what you will do. Those require very different skill sets — and office finds you out if you aren’t up to it. 

A plane needs two wings

The attempt to deselect and humiliate Diane Abbott was crass, and wrong. Nothing like it must happen again. Labour is not and never has been a socialist party we are “labourist” and without the anchor of the union movement at times in our history we would have wandered completely from the mainstream of British politics.

Yet, the Left is a vital part of our movement — our broad church. Every successful Labour government has drawn on the Left for its energy and inspiration — even Ramsay MacDonald’s in 1924, their Housing Act that delivered nearly half a million homes over a decade was the child of Red Clydesider, John Wheatley. Attlee’s nationalisation was Left policy and the National Health Service was devised and delivered by the firebrand, Nye Bevan. Wilson, like you, was from the Left of the party and delivered an ambitious industrial strategy, generous welfare reform and massive social liberalisation. 

As for Tony and Gordon? Where would New Labour have been without Marxism Today? Stuart Hall’s work remains vital as, of course does Gramsci’s observation: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Is there a better explanation for why the UK has suffered four Tory prime ministers in six years?

Mission-driven government as an idea comes from the intellectual ferment that arose in the 2010s following the Global Financial Crisis. The energy on the Left, dreaming of a different and better world cannot — and should not — be denied, it should drawn on. 

As a social democrat you know that our historic role has been to rescue capitalism from itself. A red-green politics is what we need if we are both to tackle climate change and grow enough to address inequality. That’s why Ed Miliband is such a vital part of your team — reaching to, and drawing from, a Labour tradition that goes back to the origins of the party. 

Remember, you will be governing in a country where around two-thirds of voters will have supported a progressive party — Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens or the nationalist parties. Time to stop worrying about losing voters to your Right, time to realise that your true “hero voters” are on the Centre Left.

Rebuild the base

This was an immense victory but there were losses too. The voters from our base who wanted to send us a message. This has become a pattern over the last decade. We have spent the last five years winning back the “Red Wall” — and that’s been right. It has been a longer road to win back the “Tartan Wall” that fell in 2015 but our effort has never slackened. And now we need to reunite a party that has been split by a desire to see peace. Just as we showed “Red Wall” voters we “got it” so must we win back the many councillors and members who have left us over Gaza. A strong Race Equality Act is essential, and action against Islamophobia. 

But also swift action to recognise Palestine as a state — how can there be a two-state solution with only one state in existence? None of this is easy, but recovering lost parts of our base is essential. We have to reach out — if we can’t bend, then we will eventually break.

Govern in poetry

Mario Cuomo famously said of progressive politicians: “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” But this has been one of the most prosaic campaigns in modern British politics. That has been for a reason. The campaign has really been going on since the fall of Boris Johnson, but in full force since Rishi Sunak became PM. His January 2023 pledges were the informal launch of the long campaign and the 17 months from then until the election was declared required intense message discipline — the opposite of poetry. But while the rebuilding required in the UK will take time it doesn’t need to be worthy and boring. It’s time to govern in poetry.

The past decade has been one of divisive politics — seeking to turn us against each other. That has been exacerbated by social media but it has been driven by the government itself and successive prime ministers seeking to scapegoat the nation for their own political failures. An antidote for that and the foundation of a decade of renewal has to be a different tone and language. One that lifts hearts and spirits.

The task of decarbonising the economy should be inspirational, as should the aspiration of spreading growth around the country. The key to the missions is that they are based on a simple proposition — “We have a problem! What are we going to do about it?” That’s a mobilising and a liberating call.

Perhaps JFK had it right when he spoke at Harvard in 1956. Concluding a reflection on the role of ideas in politics, he quoted an English mother who had brusquely told a headteacher “Don’t teach my boy poetry; he is going to stand for Parliament.” And went on to disagree: “Well, perhaps she was right — but if more politicians knew poetry and more poets knew politics, I am convinced the world would be a little better place in which to live.” Not a bad aspiration. 

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