Jon Trickett has been near the heart of Labour politics since the early years of Blair. “I’ve had a front row seat for quite a long time now and it has been interesting.”
He was Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to Peter Mandelson in the first years of the 1997 government and then much later PPS to Gordon Brown as prime minister. After the 2010 defeat, he served as consigliere to Ed Miliband, first as shadow Cabinet Office minister and then with a roving brief designed to enforce Miliband’s will and keep his feet to the fire. He is now Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘preparing for government’ powerhouse – relevant to his role as shadow minister for the Cabinet Office, placing him at the heart of planning for Labour to take office.
So how does this former New Labour insider fit into the politics of Jeremy Corbyn? In many ways that dichotomy is at the heart of who Jon Trickett is. He’s an avowed left-winger, quick to tell me of the many times he rebelled in between his government jobs – especially over Iraq. But he’s also a pragmatist. It makes him the obvious person to plan a transition to power that delivers Labour’s radical change agenda while also taking along the country and the machinery of government.
Trickett was originally tasked with running the so-called “access meetings” with the civil service prior to the 2017 election. Usually these take place over six months giving the civil service and opposition frontbench plenty of time to work together to think about how manifesto plans might be implemented. With the last election happening at such short notice, there were only a few weeks for this process. And that concerned him: “we want the civil service to be aware of what our plans are so they can prepare. “He is also clear that a lack of planning and engagement could prove costly. “When we’re in office, we don’t want to waste the first six or nine months, not having prepared ourselves.”
There is also the public relations question, something of which he is acutely aware. “It would be better if we indicate in advance our intentions for government. If our plans are authoritative, credible and popular, it should help us to reassure people who are concerned – as people always are – about a change of direction for the country.”
Trickett has now been tasked with steering the process of not just managing a radical Labour Party into government, but making sure it is government-ready when it gets there – and with a plan informed and approved by the electorate and party members.
He’s started by working with the shadow cabinet. “We’ve asked them to identify about five top priorities. And within those five, to then prioritise each one of them. Some things will take quite a lot of time to implement. We’ll need to make an early start. And some of them will be top priority.” It is through this process of prioritisation that Trickett hopes to ensure that a Labour government will be able to be certain about what it wants to do. But he’s also clear on the challenges. Any proposed policy will have to achieve two (possibly contradictory) outcomes: first to “reflect Labour party policy as determined, ultimately, by the members” and second to not entail “financial commitments which haven’t been financed by our Treasury team.”
The planning process is well underway. Trickett has laid out how the Shadow Cabinet will ensure not just that they know what they want to do, but how to deliver it. “We will effectively prepare a short book for each department, setting out our radical alternative to what’s happening at the present time. We intend to do rough timescales and say how these ideas will be implemented… and that will be presented both to the country but equally to the civil service when we get into office, if we’re lucky enough to win the election. It will mean that from day one we’ll be able to make progress.”
But make no mistake, this is not 1995 all over again. This isn’t about trying to present the cautious message of ‘responsibility’ which saw New Labour mirror many Conservative policies. There will be no promises of matching Tory spending plans. Instead, Trickett sees this as part of his role in holding a future Labour government to account. “Part of the process of developing a programme for office whilst we’re out of office is also about making sure that we don’t become blunted and lacking in radicalism.”
One way of sustaining radicalism in office is to make sure Labour’s plans have a strong public mandate. The next manifesto will be clear and, if elected, Labour will govern on it, says Trickett. “[The] intention is to know exactly what we intend to do so our politicians are clear-minded and have got robust plans which have been tested in public opinion – and also with people with relevant experience – to ensure that we don’t lose our radicalism.”
He is also careful to guard against institutional inertia. “If you speak to civil servants what they’ll tell you is the thing that they dislike the most is lack of clarity from politicians. And I think if you speak to politicians who have been in office, what they will tell you is, if you aren’t clear then the civil service agenda will triumph over the political agenda. There’s no doubt whatsoever when [we] get into office, the civil service will have a book for us of all the problems which the Tories will have left behind. We have to make sure that whilst we clean up the mess which has been left, equally we can get on with the processes which we want to engage in.”
Trickett was an early supporter of Jeremy Corbyn who he nominated for the leadership. He argues that Jeremy’s success has three key pillars: “One was a new economic consensus; one was doing politics very differently; the third was re-evaluating the way in which Britain’s relationship with the rest of the world operates.”
Trickett recalls it was foreign policy that foreshortened the career of Tony Blair who he describes – particularly over Iraq – as “thinking he could walk on water.” But key to what he believes went wrong was hubris. A sense that Blair and to an extent Brown weren’t willing to listen and engage. “It will be my intention – and John McDonnell is already doing this, as is Jeremy – of reaching out to all kinds of people in the wider society, engaging with them and listening to them and learning from them.”
There may be those in the party who dispute that this is really happening, although it is certainly true that the Labour membership is larger and more engaged than has been the case for a long time. Trickett is keen to move that engagement beyond the membership and out into communities. During Ed Miliband’s leadership, he was one of the key voices encouraging the former Labour leader to pursue community organising. But he says this approach to politics has only really taken-off under Corbyn. “The mood of the times is horizontal rather than vertical.”
Making sure that communities are engaged in the policy making process is, according to Trickett, a key component of Labour’s future success both electorally and governmentally. Bottom up policy making is something he’s very keen on. I challenge that the party doesn’t seem to have changed much in terms of the imposition of power from the top – just that who is at the top has changed. He replies “both the way in which we relate to the community and the way in which we form policy is in the process of being changed over time. Everything takes longer than you want it to. But that is the direction Jeremy’s set and the way the party’s moving. Our policy will develop and evolve as we listen to the public and as we listen to the Labour party. I think there is always more to do. And certainly, Jeremy’s intention is to begin to transform the old party structure into what he’s described as a social movement. And I’m very much in favour of that.”
That doesn’t mean Trickett can’t see a role for control at the centre of the party. “When you think about a political party, it needs to have a centralised system by which policy can be formulated so there aren’t a dozen separate policies running.” But that central party cannot simply manage away dissent either in the party or country. “In the end, politics is about hearts and minds and it’s also about numbers. If you cannot secure a majority of people in the party and also the wider labour movement, and then in the country, then eventually you’ll come crashing down.”
This dichotomy is echoed when we discuss devolution. Labour is keen to sound radical on this issue but it’s often harder to pin down frontbenchers on the details. Trickett is aware that letting go of power is easier to say than do. “From a socialist point of view, there’s a tension between local autonomy and equity.”
He posits the possibility of a right-wing mayor who is in charge of a devolved healthcare system deciding to stop funding sexual health services or privatising provision. A Labour government would find it hard to swallow the idea of enabling that through devolution. “I think you would want to have some common safety-net practices or frameworks established by the centre. Within that, you can say it is your job locally to make sure that the service that you are managing fits the needs of the local community which you represent and stand for.”
This sounds pragmatic but may alarm both those who believe in central control and those who believe in radical devolution. “I think this wrestling between two separate issues which are both Labour values, left-wing values – equity on the one hand and increased local autonomy on the other – striking a balance between the two is one of those central, knotty problems we all need to think a lot more about.”
One thing he believes will help reinvigorate democracy centrally is reform of the relationship between the government and parliament. Government simply feels too remote from the governed. For example, at present he says there are too many urgent questions, because ministers have to be almost dragged to the house to explain, reluctantly what they’re doing.
“An incoming Labour government would voluntarily come to the house with statements – certainly in the first hundred days – announcing changes in direction across a whole variety of things. So whilst the Queen’s speech is important, Jeremy wants to change the way in which politics works so that the house becomes the debating chamber of the nation.”
He also sees Labour using the house of commons more effectively now. He says Labour has been an effective op-position. “You can always do better, but I think we have been effective in showing how the current economic consensus, for example, simply isn’t working.” He also wants to see a shift towards showing not just where the Tories are wrong, but that Labour is “being an alternative government.” Trickett says: “the two things have got to be interconnected. You can’t be an effective opposition if you can’t one day govern.”
Jon Trickett has big ambitions for the next Labour government. “Because the population – millions of people – will have voted for change. So from day one they will be wanting to see progress on the various promises that we’ve made.” He outlines the shape of the programme: “Changing the way in which the economy is working has to be a core objective. We’ve made the reversal of the process of austerity a high priority and that will be the case; but we also equally want to rebalance the economy. There are some services which we believe should be back in public ownership because they are natural monopolies and provide a public service such as rail and water.”
It’s not just about big-ticket legislation. Some things can be achieved by changing the internal culture. “We want to end some of the outsourcing which has been done. Ending the privatisation of some services can be done quickly and easily by simply speaking to the procurement people and saying we’re changing direction.”
These are simple and (I return to this word again) pragmatic things a government can do with relative ease. It feels in many ways like that is what Trickett is trying to do. He is seeking to break a radical agenda down into practical steps that are both possible to implement at the heart of government and ambitious enough to change the shape of the country. It’s a tough ask, and he’s working through some of the thorniest issues. But if he manages it, he may just help Labour to write the roadmap for a different Britain.