Rachel Reeves has brought some much-needed unity to the Labour Party today with a policy-heavy speech attacking the Tory government and putting forward bold solutions. The opposition party has consistently talked about “value for money” and “wasteful public spending” during the crisis, while emphasising the need to ensure public services are “resilient” to shocks such as the pandemic. This brings together a critique of austerity with the Labour leadership’s bid to build trust on the economy. This morning, the narrative was developed further.
The government decisions described by Reeves defy common sense. She pointed out that the “the past performance of private companies delivering public services is not taken into account” (outsourcing firm Serco, for example, literally admitted responsibility for fraud in 2019 and had to pay £22.9m to the UK’s Serious Fraud Office). There is “no information” available about the fast-track VIP process for emergency Covid procurement. £22bn was spent on a test and trace system that has been “only making a marginal difference”. There is a “very cosy club” in operation here that “doesn’t inspire confidence at all”, she told journalists in a briefing this afternoon.
Reeves’ proposals to address these problems seem obvious but they are also strong. Her team first started working on this intervention in October, and the work put into it is evident. The Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has said Labour in government would include and use clawback provisions in procurement contracts (to get money back if what is delivered does not meet standards), extend the Freedom of Information Act (to increase transparency and stop firms hiding behind ‘commercial sensitivity’) and support public services and local authorities to bring contracts back in-house.
News of Reeves’ speech was shared not only by fellow members of the shadow cabinet, but also by Dan Carden, the left-wing MP who was appointed to the shadow Treasury team last year before later quitting, Owen Jones, Ellie Mae O’Hagan, former Jeremy Corbyn spokesperson James Schneider and Momentum. Unite and UNISON have also welcomed the announcements. After a week of criticism from centrist media including typically supportive commentators, as well as the right-wing press, having such consensus on display from the party over policy – and a more confident style of comms – is a welcome reprieve for Keir Starmer.
Some in Labour are hoping that Reeves’ intervention will encourage “a bit more boldness and definition across the board”, as one source put it. It is also important that the party keeps driving and building on this particular narrative, rather than dropping it too soon in favour of another. How many times did we hear “long-term economic plan” from the Tories in the run-up to 2015, or “fix the roof while the sun is shining”, or later “get Brexit done”? It was irritating as hell but we still remember these phrases. To drive the dominant narrative, the opposition party must settle on a couple of key lines for the next three years – and the themes of Reeves’ speech provide an excellent foundation for doing just that.