Rachel Reeves has told the Fabian Society’s new year conference today that a Labour government would show “respect for taxpayers’ money” and use the “playbook” provided by the last time the party was in power to “transform public services”.
While in conversation with Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee at the conference this afternoon, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor compared living under Tory austerity in recent years to the experiences that she had in the 1980s and 1990s.
There are “so many parallels with what we inherited in 1997”, Reeves said, adding that there were not enough textbooks to go around when she was at school and now “it’s heartbreaking knowing that in my son’s class four kids are probably going hungry”.
“We’ve got a playbook here because Labour did transform public services,” the Labour frontbencher told the conference. Citing New Labour policies on public services, she pledged: “Friends, we will do those things again. We will turn around those public services.”
Criticising wasteful government spending during Covid, Reeves said: “It’s about respect for taxpayers money. When people are so hard pressed and you’re asking them to pay additional taxes, you’ve got to be really confident that you’re using this money wisely.”
The Shadow Chancellor suggested that the “casual disregard for taxpayers’ money” shown by Tory ministers throughout the pandemic could be because “they haven’t had to work very hard” and “don’t know the value of anything”.
Reeves called on the government to claw back the money from Covid contracts that were not delivered, saying that in the private sector “if you signed a contract with a company to deliver something and they didn’t deliver, you wouldn’t still pay them”.
On reviewing the contracts and getting back the money spent on those not delivered, she said: “If they don’t do it, an incoming Labour government will.” She also accused the Tories of becoming “a high tax party” because “they’ve become a low growth party”.
The Labour frontbencher said of Rishi Sunak: “This Chancellor doesn’t know what sort of Chancellor he wants to be. He has that position of power and authority that frankly I would love to have but he doesn’t know what to do with it.”
Government minister Nadhim Zahawi last week rejected Labour’s proposal of a windfall tax to reduce energy prices on the basis that oil and gas companies are “already struggling”. Reeves quoted Zahawi and laughed at his argument today.
“There’s no magic money tree, but there are choices we can make – and Labour would make incredibly different choices to what this government is making,” Reeves said. When asked “how radical a Chancellor” she would be, she pointed to her climate investment pledge of £28bn per year for the next ten years.
Reeves also accused the government of scrapping its industrial strategy, while making the case that the strategy it once did have was too focused on high-tech, high-performing sectors of the economy where there is high pay.
She said Labour would take an approach based on ‘the everyday economy‘, and “drive up pay and terms and conditions and opportunity in those parts of the economy that employ huge numbers of people”, such as retail, social care and hospitality.
On the ‘levelling up’ agenda, Reeves said “it’s not charity, this is about all of our economic prosperity”, adding: “I want to see levelling up but I don’t want to see it all coming from Westminster.” One gets “more bang for your back” if power is handed to locally elected politicians, she said.
Earlier in the day at the conference, Keir Starmer declared that “we need to learn to live with Covid, so that people can live their lives as normal supported by a strong health care system” today as he outlined “Labour’s contract for better health”.