Among the wider preparations that parties undertake for an election, opposition parties are given access to the civil service so that they can discuss what changes they would seek to make if voting goes their way. And it so happened that, under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, I was the person designated by Labour to assist with our ‘transition talks’ in the run-up to the June 2017 general election.
It is a story now familiar to those in British politics who care to remember. After repeatedly ruling out the possibility of an election, Theresa May suddenly announced one. At the time of her declaration, Labour were on 26 per cent in the opinion polls, but throughout the election our popularity increased; by polling day, we had advanced to 40 per cent.
While the election timing might have caught us by surprise, we were ready for the talks with civil service figures. Our attitude was one of determination; if we were to form a government, we wanted to be confident in our aims. After all, millions of voters would have voted for big changes to the structures of our country.
The first discussion with the most senior civil servants was brief, and I felt that we were being patronised. This was at a time when we were on around 30 per cent in the polls. It must have seemed to them like a futile exercise to speak to us. Much later I discovered that the senior civil servant — a Knight of the Realm — went back laughing to the staff in his office saying that he didn’t even take a pencil with him to meet us.
But later on in the campaign, in the weeks leading up to polling day, the situation was changing fast. And at that point, they began to take us seriously.
The exchanges we had were extensive, but one small incident has stayed in my mind. If we won, we were asked, when would we intend to reconvene parliament for a Queen’s Speech? My response was that May had already announced the date in the expectation that she would win the election. ‘It’s just that,’ the civil servant continued, ‘it is my task to ensure that the interests of Her Majesty are protected. As you know, she has a busy diary.’
Later, we would learn that Theresa May’s Queen’s Speech was taking place on a day when the Queen was due to be at the horse races; it’s fair to say that Her Majesty was not pleased according to the reports in the press at the time.
During the second part of this particular conversation, it was intimated that we might not yet have the details of our Queen’s Speech in mind. The civil servants offered to help, telling us that ‘we have a small bill ready for you.’ My response was to say, ‘if you think that we have gone through all of this, promising a transformative Labour government with the prospect of fundamentally changing the country — but that we will be happy with a “small bill” — you are mistaken.’
My counter proposal was that the civil service offered us a ‘paving bill’, which would allow us to take a number of parts of the economy into public ownership, such as the railways and a substantial part of the energy supply industry. At this, the grandees visibly paled. The suggestion was ruled out of court: ‘Oh, a bill like that would take many months to prepare.’
Our discussions were respectful, relaxed, and cordial, and the civil servants we met were of the highest calibre: intelligent, sophisticated, urbane, self-assured, in control, and perhaps a little cunning. They assured me that our programme would be delivered in full, but it was clear to us that their natural priorities were of a wholly different sort to ours.
For all of us in the Labour leadership, the context of these transition talks was established by the people we encountered during the election campaign. Just before the meeting described above, I visited the home of a nurse in my constituency. Her story was typical of millions, one which explained the need for change in the country.
The nurse — a young woman in her late twenties — worked on the operating theatres in a local hospital. They had increased the number of theatres but cut the number of porters without additional nursing staff. Nurses were working harder than ever, she told me, now forced to lift patients onto and off the trolleys, which was normally a porter’s task.
One day, she hurt her back lifting a particularly heavy patient. When she woke up the next day, she discovered her hips were no longer in alignment with her back, which turned out to be broken.
During the election, another NHS worker told me that even though she was working a full week and doing overtime, she couldn’t live on the money she was earning. She invited me to look in her fridge. When I looked, it was almost totally empty.
When I had entered her home I noticed that there were no carpets on the floor. Her two children had gone to live with their estranged father because she could no longer afford to feed them. Her sadness about that was the most miserable thing of all.
It was these people — the millions who work hard, play by the rules, but struggle to get by — who were in my mind when the transition talks began. We can’t forget that in 2017, a great hope was sparked by the prospect of a Corbyn-led Labour government. People believed we could tackle these entrenched problems with resilience and vigour.
But of course, we didn’t win. And in a final irony, the small bill which the civil servants offered to us then appeared in May’s Queen’s Speech.
What are the lessons of all this? For me, a primary lesson is the cultural differences and the gaps in life experiences between those who run the country and the rest of us. The old expression that ‘governments may come and go, but the civil service is permanent,’ captures a sense of this.
Our political structures are deformed, profoundly undemocratic, and do not work in the interests of the vast majority of people. A veneer of democracy cannot hide the fact that the British State functions to maintain the power of a golden circle of the rich and powerful.
Those who occupy the most important positions within the state — often simply by nature of their backgrounds — simply do not understand the experiences of those who suffer from their policies. They certainly do not comprehend the scale of change needed to combat Britain’s injustices.
We are governed by a class which inhabits a closed, comfortable, and privileged world that provides little if any insight into the conditions that so many are condemned to. This reality is the key to explaining the political alienation and discontent which we see all around us.
There will have to be a profound democratic revolution before any of this will change. If we hope someday to elect a government that delivers real social justice and builds a more cohesive society, the vast working majority will need to take their place on the political stage.