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8 July 2024

Labour must learn to govern like Gove to transform the country

The new cabinet should take inspiration from the last government’s greatest reformer.

By Harry Quilter-Pinner

In the dying days of the last Labour government, Gordon Brown gave a speech listing the achievements of New Labour. To rapturous applause he set out the case that the party had transformed the country: “The shortest waiting times in history. Crime down by a third. The creation of Sure Start, devolution. Civil partnerships…”

Fast forward 15 years and many, even on the right, are starting to admit that the Conservatives appear to have far less to show for their time in power. Very few recent ministers can claim to have truly changed the country for the better. Unsurprisingly, the electorate punished them for this.  

There is, however, one exception to this: Michael Gove.

Some will object to what he pursued in office, but few can deny that he got stuff done. Whether it’s the improvement in academic outcomes in schools or the devolution of power to regions across England as part of levelling up, his legacy will outlast his time in parliament. 

As Labour takes the reins of power in Westminster, new ministers, starting their roles across Whitehall, should take note of the “Gove playbook”. Talking and listening to historical interviews with those who have worked with Gove in recent years, as documented by Mary Ann Sieghart, five lessons emerge.

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Firstly, Conservative ministers in recent years have too often been unclear on what they have been trying to achieve. They have pursued “power without a purpose”. Gove never fell into this trap. Camilla Cavendish, who was director of policy in David Cameron’s No 10, has said: “He had a laser-like focus about what he wanted to achieve, and he was bloody minded about getting there.”

Secondly, Gove sought to use the political capital of being newly in power (in 2010) or newly appointed in his subsequent roles to push through change. This comes with the risk of making mistakes – which he did at the Department for Education (DfE), for example, being unnecessarily hostile to teachers – but maximises the use of the so-called honeymoon period to deliver.

Thirdly, he put aligned people in positions of power to champion change in government. Pamela Dow, a civil servant who moved with Gove from the DfE to the Ministry for Justice has said his attitude was: “Inform, explain, persuade. Equip everyone around you – especially the private office – with the pithy ‘why, what, how, when, who’”

Fourthly, in a Conservative Party that has become increasingly intellectually moribund, he was a champion of ideas. As his permanent secretary at DfE has said: “He had a voracious appetite for reading… He was completely engaged with the agenda… Michael was clearly up to it intellectually.” In the words of Cavendish: “Michael Gove is a one-man think tank.”

And, finally, he was willing to put his ego to one side to get things done. Some ministers in recent years have relied on the fear of bullying or the sack to get their way. By contrast, as one former civil servant told me, Gove was “polite to a fault” and “genuinely fun to work with”. This proved much more effective in “releasing the energy” of those around him to deliver on his agenda.

Similarly, unlike many of his peers, Gove was more concerned with getting things done than getting a promotion. As his controversial adviser Dominic Cummings has commented: “His approach was I don’t mind if in four or five years’ time, I’m gone… if we have achieved a significant impact… That gave us a lot of freedom just to put our foot down.”

These lessons can help Labour in this crucial moment. Newly appointed ministers face an unenviable inheritance. Economic growth is unequal and stagnant. Public services, from the NHS to the police, are on their knees. And people are still feeling the pinch of the cost-of-living crisis.

In response to these challenges, Keir Starmer has set out five ambitious missions to get Britain working again. And, despite trust in politics being at record lows, expectations are still high that Labour will rapidly sow the shoots of recovery.

Tony Blair, the last Labour leader before Starmer to win an election, has told people around the new Prime Minister that his biggest regret was not using his first years in power more effectively. Learning to “govern like Gove” can help them avoid the same mistake.

No doubt, Gove was far from perfect. He made enemies. He was controversial. At times he pushed against the system. But he also used government to transform the country. With so many of Labour’s votes “borrowed”, and an impatience for change across the country, this is the spirit the party needs to emulate in the years ahead.

[See also: Jubilation from the French left on the streets of Paris]

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