Jonathan Reynolds, Labour’s work and pensions spokesperson, has promised that “there will be no return” by him to the ‘undeserving poor’ rhetoric used by George Osborne when talking about the social security system.
In an interview with LabourList on Wednesday evening, the new Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary addressed Labour members who worry that the party could use language blaming individuals for their poverty.
He said: “There will be no return from me to the rhetoric that mirrors George Osborne. People will know for many different reasons – my political history, being chair of Christians on the Left – that is the opposite direction from which I will be coming at this.”
Explaining his comments in a recent House magazine interview on strengthening contributory benefits, which attracted criticism from some members, Reynolds said: “I don’t see any tension between a contributory principle and the universal system.
“Because what you need is something that has all of those components to truly give people the support they need. You need a much more supportive minimum for all… but you also need to look at what’s called wage replacement.”
He added: “Anyone who has any concerns, let me tell you: our ambition is increasing from what we’ve said in the past. We’re going to try to produce a blueprint for a truly effective modern system for social security that gives dignity, respect and support for everybody.”
Reynolds reiterated that Labour intends to scrap Universal Credit rather than reform it. He said the party is “still open-minded” on whether UC is replaced “with a combined household benefit or something different”.
“The crucial point is that contributory benefits already exist. And I’m not in the business of cutting any benefits, closing any benefits,” the shadow cabinet member concluded, adding that his focus is on a “much more comprehensive system”.
Universal basic income
Asked about a universal basic income, which Reynolds has advocated in the past, he said: “I’ve always been interested in UBI because I like benefits that aren’t means-tested. I think something that is genuinely comprehensive and universal and open to everyone is clearly a plus.”
He added that UBI is “not a magic bullet”, however, because there is still a need to further support people with disabilities and account for hugely variable housing costs, and it would need to be a “component of the system” instead.
“The conversation is there to be had in terms of what people want to send to us, in terms of ideas, as to how to do it,” Reynolds told LabourList. “We’re not ruling anything out.”
Working under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership
Noting that he and John McDonnell are “not from the same bit of the Labour Party”, Reynolds said he had nonetheless “very much enjoyed being on the frontbench over the last few years” as shadow economic secretary in the Treasury team.
But the frontbencher criticised key parts of Labour’s 2019 manifesto, including the financial transactions tax – that the party said would raise £8.8bn – and the employee share ownership scheme.
Asked whether there were 2019 proposals that he did not find credible, Reynolds raised the financial transactions tax, saying: “It was a very significant increase in taxation in a way that hasn’t been proven before in how that would actually be delivered. That was a problem for me internally.”
He also said that in nationalising key industries “you’ve got to be very clear as to how you would compensate that” due to the effect not only on shareholders but also pension funds invested in the sectors.
And Reynolds said he was “very much in favour of” employee share ownership, but added: “You’ve got to have a credible mechanism to deliver that.” He suggested that Labour’s plan – requiring large companies to set up Inclusive Ownership Funds – was not sufficient.
The future of work
Asked about the changing world of work, Reynolds said of Labour: “Have we struggled to understand and respond to the big changes in how people work and how they’re employed? I think the answer to that is yes.”
Reynolds cited self-employment – not only ‘false self-employment’ in the gig economy, but also the lack of protections for workers who choose it because they need flexibility – and commented that the party had “struggled” with this aspect of work.
On automation, he said the last Labour Treasury team was keen to “find a way to use technology to improve people’s lives, not resist it”, adding: “That was what we were about, and I think we could be a lot stronger, a lot clearer on that message.
“Because there could be huge benefits for people. And I think Labour wins and is more successful when we’re looking to the future and explaining how that future could be positive… rather than resisting or feeling that we can turn the clock back.”
Reynolds has been appointed by leader Keir Starmer as a frontbench representative on Labour’s national executive committee, but he was also on the NEC as a youth rep between 2003 and 2005.
Comparing these different experiences of the NEC, the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary said: “It was a difficult time for the party. This was post-Iraq, so really difficult internal politics.
“But I’ve got to be honest, from what I remember from the meetings back then, the culture and the conduct and the spirit of the meetings, they were better than what I’ve seen and experienced so far.”
The full interview is available to watch below.