Kate Andrews

The flaw in Labour’s economic attacks

Reeves can't criticise Tory spending when her party demands yet more

The flaw in Labour's economic attacks
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Labour avidly disagrees with the Tories’ plan to fill budget gaps by hiking National Insurance. So what would they do differently? This was one of the many tasks Rachel Reeves had today as the shadow chancellor delivered her speech at Labour party conference. Reeves not only had to set out an alternative tax-and-spend policy but also take aim at the financial decisions made by Boris Johnson’s government.

Did Reeves succeed? No doubt her job was made much easier over the weekend as an energy crisis, which the government should have seen coming, continued to splash across the front pages, exacerbated by fuel shortages at the pumps brought on by a lack of truck drivers. There are indeed ‘snaking queues at petrol stations,’ as Reeves suggested, and the government is ‘having to issue reassurances that it can even keep the lights on'. Even if the situation isn’t as dire as some of the headlines suggest, it is a far from ideal set of circumstances for the reigning party to be entering ahead of the conference season.

But the crucial questions for the future of Labour weren’t answered. It seems debates within the party over wealth taxes will carry on, as the biggest commitment Reeves could give on redesigning the tax code was to make tax ‘fairer’, making sure ‘those at the top pay their fair share, too.’ A rather tired line, which was debunked long ago (for income anyway) as the top 1 per cent of earners pay nearly 30 per cent of income tax. A redistributionist's dream.

Other pledges included a commitment to tax efficiency, which would go hand-in-hand with a ‘new, independent Office for Value for Money'. Perhaps an attempt to park on the Tories' lawn. It was language designed to appeal to the voter who longs for the days when financial responsibility was a serious talking point. 

The difficulty for Reeves, however, is that the rest of the speech failed to back up this aim. For all the talk of efficiency, there was no mention of any area of spending the party would roll back (apart from contracts issued during the crisis).

Reeves’s big announcement — a pledge to abolish business rates altogether — will no doubt go down well with plenty of small business owners who haven’t just struggled throughout Covid but were hit with disproportionately high tax bills simply for being a bricks-and-mortar retailer.
But without proper reform, the financial benefit of scrapping rates might soon be undone by rising rents; landlords will be aware that business owners are in a position to pay a bit more. Meanwhile, plenty of small business owners will be wary of the interventionist plans surrounding today’s headline conference policy, including the implementation of an ‘industrial strategies’ for ‘everyday economy sectors’ including ‘retail, hospitality and care'.

For all the areas Reeves covered in today’s speech, one topic was notably absent. Rishi Sunak was only mentioned twice — somewhat surprising considering what an active role the Treasury has been playing in the economy at the moment. To a large extent Reeves’s hands are tied: while a few references to the national debt and yearly deficits were made, it’s nearly impossible for Labour to go hard on the Tories for their spending when one of the party’s major criticism of Johnson throughout Covid was that he wasn’t doing more.

But what it did do — its centrepiece pandemic policy — is something Sunak proudly defends to the hilt. Minutes after Reeves finished her speech, the Chancellor released a glossy new video on his Twitter page: ‘The Story of Furlough’. It's a five and a half minute video recounting how the government was paying the salaries of over nine million people at the peak of the scheme.

The Treasury is clearly planning to bank on its pandemic support for some time and, as evidenced by a lack of direct criticism in Reeves speech, Labour is struggling to find cracks in it. Expect the past 18 months of support to be a big topic at next week’s Tory conference too: as long as Labour continues to gloss over their specific economic proposals, the Conservatives have little to respond to — and can instead direct attention to what they consider to be wins from the past.