Labour Should Set Its Own Spending Agenda

Following the budget last week, in which Richie Sunak and Jeremy Hunt massively increased taxes to pay for their parties cumulative incompetence, some commentators suggested that the delayed spending cuts outlined by Hunt would be a trap that Labour would find it difficult to avoid.

The bulk of the proposed spending cuts have been budgeted for 2024 and beyond, though there are plenty of swings of the axe being wielded even before the ink is dry on the statement. According to the Resolution Foundation, we’ve gone from the biggest batch of tax cuts in fifty years, to the biggest set of tax rises in fifty years, all within a matter of weeks.

Some suggest that Labour won’t be able to fight the General Election of 2024 successfully if it doesn’t do what Gordon Brown did in 1997, and stick with the Tories spending plans. Commentators, it can be guaranteed, never cease to confuse politics with process, and on this occasion it’s clear they are mistaking game playing with what is the political and economic reality of the UK in 2022, and for the next decade.

Labour must make a virtue of ripping up the Tory budget, with whatever symbolic and practical demonstration it can put together. Why would anyone agree to take over these plans? They are not tenable or desirable. No one is looking for these plans to be executed. They are s stop-gap to get to the next election without provoking a run on the pound. Nothing more and nothing less.

Sunak and Hunt are doing what they can to reassure their backbench MPs that they have a grip on the economy, when their plans don’t go anywhere near sorting out the structural problems that have been evident in the UK for many years. The Tories have successfully distracted enough people in England, with the promise of property wealth increases, with just enough plausibility to get reelected.

The Tory record on the economy is otherwise awful. I visited Melton Mowbray today, for a dentist check-up, and I dropped into the library operated by Leicestershire County Council. What a woeful sight that was. Rows of out of date stock in a dilapidated building. So much for backing the knowledge economy, if the Tories can’t manage libraries, which good will they be investing in new industries?

The pandemic resulted in two fundamental questions about the long-term sustainability of both the UK economy and society. Are we prepared for any future shocks, and who is going to pay for things when they go wrong? I doubt anyone can answer either positively.

Once we’ve pushed past the delusional boosterism that the Tories have peddled for the last forty years, reality sets in. The country has deteriorated under the Tories, and they shouldn’t be trusted to put things right. The Tories have become a cult of magical thinkers. Putting faith in laissez-faire attitudes to economics and social infrastructure can be seen to be a disaster.

The Tory mindset, moreover, doesn’t comprehend that successful societies are built around the capacity of their economic and social systems to maintain a consistent and long-term capability to originate, innovate and deliver products and services. This means more than simply spaffing tax breaks about to keep your core supporters happy. It means investing in infrastructure, in the common wealth, in the institutions of community, and in stewardship of both our world and our people.

I spoke with a guy at the weekend from Brighton, who vowed that he would never vote Conservative again. After a lifetime of believing Tory promises he wanted a viable alternative that he could put his faith in. Something stable and reassuring. He knows it is going to cost more, but he’d rather have infrastructure builders and capacity managers in place, than PR agents spinning easy solutions.

It’s absurd that the Tories can promote their self-appointed reputation as the party of ‘sound finance,’ while actively destroying society. If you want to come and see how decrepit our society is becoming, I’ll happily show you around Leicester because out of the city centre thinks really look like they are falling apart. When I say this to friends and family, the usual response is that it’s the same everywhere. Well, only in the UK!

Labour doesn’t need to play this game, or worry about supposed Tory traps that excite newspaper columnists. Labour should make a virtue of scrapping the Tories spending plans, by putting in place a robust and clear plan for social justice with a radical and unapologetic focus on inequality. Let’s commit to abolishing food banks and rough sleeping by the end of the next parliament.

It was good to hear Torsten Bell on the We Society Podcast argue that inequality is the principle driver of low-growth and poor productivity in the UK. Bell argues that if working people in the UK were similarly paid as those in France, Germany and the Netherlands, then each working person would be £8,000 per year better off.

It’s time we all stopped playing Tory tunes on the economy. There is no fiscal black hole, there was no national credit card, and we don’t run a country like a household budget. The right-wing press won’t like it, but whose interests are they concerned with – hardly their readers; otherwise we wouldn’t be in this mess.

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