The Spectator

What does Rachel Reeves stand for?

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As the world discovered when she was caught lifting other people’s work for her book on women in economics, Rachel Reeves is not the most original of thinkers. But she has political talents. She has cultivated her image as an uninspiring technocrat in order to present herself as someone who will not spring surprises or take risks as chancellor. She thinks the state is inefficient and taxes are too high. She believes in ‘securonomics’, which sounds like a pleasing contrast to years of Tory policies.

It is easy to preach fiscal discipline, but in office Labour would find it very difficult to contain spending

Polls show that voters now think Labour are more likely to lower taxes than the Conservatives, so Reeves has already achieved something significant. And when it comes to plagiarism, the Tories are the ones copying her. Windfall tax on North Sea oil? Check. Abolishing non-dom status? Check. Expanding the state, so the taxpayer covers childcare costs for the well-off? Check. This is why Reeves was named Chancellor of the Year at the 2022 Spectator Parliamentarian awards, beating the four Tory candidates who had actually held the job. She is already making the intellectual running.

She has few hard policies at present. This is perhaps understandable, given the short space of time between her proposing an idea and the Tories adopting it – but her strategy is more verbal than practical. She seeks to use language usually associated with the right (stability, investment, risk-taking) to reheat the state-intervention model of the pre-Blair Labour party. This was at the heart of her Mais lecture in London this week.

Britain, she said, is ‘stumbling blindfolded into an era of a bigger state’ with the highest tax burden for 70 years. It’s true. But she has nothing in the way of remedy. She reiterated Labour’s intention to repeal all trade union reforms since 2010. Moreover, she plans to go further and outlaw zero-hours contracts – despite their popularity with many of the people employed in such a way because it allows them to turn down work when it doesn’t suit them.

These are the same economic policies Labour has been spouting for years, offering very few new ideas, despite the UK (and global) economy charting completely unknown territory since the pandemic.

Reeves is hesitant to rule out a new tax raid. She says only that there will be no wealth tax and that the rate of corporation tax will be capped at 25 per cent for the duration of the next parliament. That will come as little comfort to many businesses, which have only recently seen the tax jacked up from 19 per cent.

As for deregulation – an important part of reforms in the 1980s – Reeves is torn. On housing, she and her party continue to make all the right noises, with Reeves describing the failure of planning reform as ‘the single greatest obstacle to economic success’.

But her liberal tendencies only go so far. She also wants to compel FTSE 100 companies to publish their carbon emissions and ‘adopt credible 1.5 degrees-aligned net-zero plans’. Given that it is not possible for UK companies to decarbonise the global economy on their own it is hard to know exactly what she means.

As for fiscal discipline, Reeves’s promises are similar to Sunak’s. She says she will keep Jeremy Hunt’s fiscal target, so the debt-to-GDP ratio will fall only by the end of a five-year parliament. This suggests that she might even be thinking of increasing borrowing in the short-term. Sunak’s current plan envisages the debt ratio rising until 2028/29. So on debt, there’s not much to choose between the two parties.

That’s assuming Reeves keeps her word. It is very easy to preach fiscal discipline, but in office Labour would find it politically extremely difficult to contain spending. There will be no shortage of MPs in her own party demanding the chancellor spends more. From day one, a Labour government would be besieged by demands from public sector unions, the NHS, universities, the arts and many others who would be expecting a big payday to celebrate the end of ‘Tory austerity’. Will Reeves really have the gumption to reject their pleas?

The only way to achieve growth is to end the welfare dysfunction that has 5.6 million on out-of-work benefits in the middle of a desperate worker shortage. This is about social repair, not just economic repair: a classic progressive mission. Can Reeves persuade her party to embark on that task, given how much they enjoyed portraying welfare reform as heartless when Iain Duncan Smith carried it out? At present, it seems unlikely. But if she does not, the split between the two nations – working and workless – will deepen. Economic difficulty will mutate into crisis.

Still, the prospect of Reeves at the Treasury is not an alarming one. She does not terrify businesses and workers in the way John McDonnell did. The biggest risk is that her innate caution will see her avoid reforming benefits and steer her towards policies that sound good in speeches but do nothing for the economy. We can be sure that Labour, traditionally the party of big government, would be taking over at a time when the size of the state – and the welfare bill – is at a near-record high. It will take an enormous political effort to reverse this. The Tories have been unable to do so and there is, regrettably, no sign that Reeves has the motivation or resolve to do any better.