5 things we learned from the Hunt/Reeves interviews today

13th October, 2013 1:05 pm

There has been considerable interest today in interventions from Rachel Reeves and Tristram Hunt today on their new policy areas. So here are five things we’ve learned as a result:

The policy hasn’t changed…

Tristram Hunt says Labour favours “parent-led academies” which will be focused on areas of greatest need, rather than free schools. That’s not a new policy – that’s a reiteration of what Stephen Twigg said in July. And as for not closing successful free schools – Stephen Twigg told me that in an interview back in early 2012.

As for Reeves, there’s a renewed focus on the compulsory jobs guarantee and sanctions for those who turn down a job (existing policy) and using outsourcing to enforce the living wage (existing policy). The only potential change is a move away from contributory welfare, but that was always kite flying and had never really been endorsed.

So in policy terms, it’s as you were.

…but the language certainly has

However, where Reeves and Hunt are differing from their predecessors is on tone, language and emphasis. Neither Liam Byrne or Stephen Twigg could ever have talked about embracing some forms of free schools or being “tougher” on welfare without howls of outrage that “the Blairites” we’re trying to outflank the Tories or undermine Miliband. Neither Hunt or Reeves carry the same baggage as their predecessors and so have greater latitude to occupy positions more clearly. Now, like me, you might think free schools are a poorly thought out idea and that entering into a rhetorical arms race on welfare with the Tories is only going to end badly, but if we’re honest, it’s language not policy that has changed – for now.

Ed Miliband was never held hostage by the “Blairites”

Another reputational issue that Byrne and Twigg often had to face was the sense that they were trying to drive Labour policy in a direction that was contrary to Ed Miliband’s own views. That wasn’t really the case – as George Eaton rightly notes. More often Miliband’s office took a view and the likes of Byrne or Twigg were sent out to sell/finesse it. That meant, accidentally or on purpose, Miliband was able to escape the flak that those shadow ministers got for policy ideas that originated in his own office. He can’t do that anymore. These policies are his policies. He can’t – and won’t – disown them. So he’ll need to embrace them – and the rhetoric too (unless he wants to try and stay above the fray whilst his shadow cabinet upset his base by talking tough).

Too much fear, not enough hope

What bothers me though, especially with regards to Rachel Reeves comments on being “tougher” than the Tories on welfare is that (as I said above) it’s an arms race we can’t win, and it’s also playing the politics of fear, not the politics of hope. As someone said recently – Britain can do better than this. So if you want to talk about the compulsory jobs guarantee, why not talk about it in a positive and hopeful way? Why not talk about ending long term unemployment, giving people a chance at a job, a career and an independent life?

When I think about that policy I think of it as hopeful – not as a way of talking about the few who don’t want to work but about the millions who do. That’s a message Reeves could have pushed – especially in the Observer.

If you do a pre-recorded interview, you don’t control the story

The reason that we’re even talking about this though, is that both Reeves and Hunt did their interventions via interviews. When you do an interview, you don’t control the focus, the headline or the way in which your message in spun. That means that their first big set pieces were at the mercy of someone else (although Hunt was also on Marr, and wrote a blog for us too, so he’s had a greater chance to shape reaction to the initial piece). That’s how you get stories about Labour being tough on welfare (when I’m guessing that was only a fraction of the Reeves interview) and Labour doing a u-turn on free schools (when the policy hasn’t changed). Neither were presumably what either will have wanted as their first headline in the Shadow Cabinet – but that’s exactly what they’ve got…

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