Special advisers have been in the news this week: the government list has gone up, while on the Labour side, Atul Hatwal of LabourUncut has criticised the salaries of some Labour employees (both government and opposition spads are paid for by taxpayers but government spads are employed by the state, while Labour spads are employed by the Labour party). You’ve just missed your chance to apply to be spads to the new shadow transport and development secretaries, or to the new shadow chief secretary.
However, the story people won’t write – and certainly no spad would ever brief! – is that spad-power is currently declining. Parliaments have a cycle. At the start, there’s legislation to pass and reputations to establish. The House of Commons matters. Interesting things are going on in all the departmental briefs, or if they aren’t, then today’s secretary of state for paperclips is interesting because they may be tomorrow’s chancellor. By the time an election is called, the Commons isn’t doing anything interesting, most departments are irrelevant to the election campaign and the spad is just the person that party headquarters phone up when they want a minister to visit a Sure Start centre in Milton Keynes.
The closer you get to the election, the more power shifts to the centre: the leader’s office, the chancellor or the shadow chancellor’s office and the central party officials. That transition is hard but, at least for Labour, it can’t come early enough. Those adverts above should be the last spads we hire and the sooner Ed Miliband, Ed Balls and their advisers transfer over to party headquarters, the better.
Election campaigns work – or don’t – based on trust. You can only work quickly if you trust each other and don’t waste time looking over each other’s shoulders. But in politics it’s natural to worry about each new person you work with. Will they leak things to the media? Can they actually do their job without buggering it up? That might sound like a silly question, but a lot of senior people in politics are appointed because of their political affiliation rather than because they have proved themselves in a similar role. That distrust dissipates over time (or you work out who not to work with).
Last time around we were in office and we knew we were going to lose, so there was always a good reason for the top politicians to keep putting off the inevitable shift to full-time election campaigning. The power will inevitably swing back to the spads after 2015: either for ministers or shadow ministers. Centralising Labour’s political operation as early as possible could help ensure it is the former and not the latter.