What Jon Cruddas's speech told us about Labour's policy review

The head of Labour's policy review hints that a mass programme of housebuilding will be a priority for the party.

Jon Cruddas's speech to the Resolution Foundation last night on "earning and belonging" was, in common with all of his addresses, thoughtful, intellectually rich and imbued with a rare sense of history. But anyone hoping for specifics from the head of Labour's policy review would have left disappointed. Cruddas described the review as being in its "first phase" and promised that over the next 12 months major pieces of work would be completed on "childhood, the Condition of Britain [Cruddas will deliver an IPPR lecture on this subject next Thursday], a British Investment Bank, infrastructure and voctional education". After the 2013 conference, he added, the review would enter a "second phase" before the policies "distil into a manifesto and pledge cards" after the 2014 conference.

There were, however, several important hints of Labour's priorities. In one of the most memorable passages, Cruddas lamented that while the government spends £1.2bn on housebuilding, it spends twenty times that amount on "rental payments to landlords". Not only was this a good example of how Labour is seeking to reframe the debate around welfare policy (Cruddas referred to "rent payments", rather than housing benefit), it also suggested that one of the party's key pledges will be a mass programme of housebuilding. 

In another intriguing section of the speech, Cruddas spoke of how Labour was exploring new ways of holding "our public institutions" to account and generating "a sense of ownership and responsibility". He cited the BBC, the police, Parliament and the City of London. Tessa Jowell's recent piece for the Telegraph calling for the BBC to be turned into "the country’s biggest mutual, with 26.8 million licence-fee payers as its shareholders", is a good example of the form this could take in practice. 

The line that has attracted the most attention is Cruddas's warning that "simply opposing the cuts without an alternative is no good." (He added: "It fails to offer reasonable hope. The stakes are high because when hope is not reasonable despair becomes real.") 

On one level this is a statement of the obvious. But it also points to a significant divide in Labour between those who believe there is nothing wrong with the economy that a bit of Keynesian stimulus won't fix and those who believe that capitalism needs to be fundamentally remade (Raf has neatly characterised this as a battle between Brown Labour and Blue). Cruddas's words made it clear that he intends to position Labour on the latter half of this divide. 

Jon Cruddas, the MP for Dagenham and Rainham and the head of Labour's policy review. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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How a small tax rise exposed the SNP's anti-austerity talk for just that

The SNP refuse to use their extra powers to lessen austerity, says Kezia Dugdale.

"We will demand an alternative to slash and burn austerity."

With those few words, Nicola Sturgeon sought to reassure the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland last year that the SNP were a party opposed to public spending cuts. We all remember the general election TV debates, where the First Minister built her celebrity as the leader of the anti-austerity cause.

Last week, though, she was found out. When faced with the choice between using the powers of the Scottish Parliament to invest in the future or imposing cuts to our schools, Nicola Sturgeon chose cuts. Incredible as it sounds the SNP stood shoulder to shoulder with the Tories to vote for hundreds of millions of pounds worth of cuts to schools and other vital public services, rather than asking people to pay a little bit more to invest. That's not the choice of an anti-austerity pin-up. It's a sell-out.

People living outside of Scotland may not be fully aware of the significant shift that has taken place in politics north of the border in the last week. The days of grievance and blaming someone else for decisions made in Scotland appear to be coming to an end.

The SNP's budget is currently making its way through the Scottish Parliament. It will impose hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts to local public services - including our schools. We don't know what cuts the SNP are planning for future years because they are only presenting a one year budget to get them through the election, but we know from the experts that the biggest cuts are likely to come in 2017/18 and 2018/19. For unprotected budgets like education that could mean cuts of 16 per cent.

It doesn't have to be this way, though. The Scottish Parliament has the power to stop these cuts, if only we have the political will to act. Last week I did just that.

I set out a plan, using the new powers we have today, to set a Scottish rate of income tax 1p higher than that set by George Osborne. This would raise an extra half a billion pounds, giving us the chance to stop the cuts to education and other services. Labour would protect education funding in real terms over the next five years in Scotland. Faced with the choice of asking people to pay a little bit more to invest or carrying on with the SNP's cuts, the choice was pretty simple for me - I won't support cuts to our nation’s future prosperity.

Being told by commentators across the political spectrum that my plan is bold should normally set alarm bells ringing. Bold is usually code for saying something unpopular. In reality, it's pretty simple - how can I say I am against cuts but refuse to use the powers we have to stop them?

Experts - including Professors David Bell and David Eiser of the University of Stirling; the Resolution Foundation; and IPPR Scotland - have said our plan is fair because the wealthiest few would pay the most. Trade unions have backed our proposal, because they recognise the damage hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts will do to our schools and the jobs it will cost.

Council leaders have said our plan to pay £100 cashback to low income taxpayers - including pensioners - to ensure they benefit from this plan is workable.

The silliest of all the SNP's objections is that they won't back our plan because the poorest shouldn't have to pay the price of Tory austerity. The idea that imposing hundreds of millions of pounds of spending cuts on our schools and public services won't make the poorest pay is risible. It's not just the poorest who will lose out from cuts to education. Every single family and business in Scotland would benefit from having a world class education system that gives our young the skills they need to make their way in the world.

The next time we hear Nicola Sturgeon talk up her anti-austerity credentials, people should remember how she did nothing when she had the chance to end austerity. Until now it may have been acceptable to say you are opposed to spending cuts but doing nothing to stop them. Those days are rapidly coming to a close. It makes for the most important, and most interesting, election we’ve had in Scotland.

Kezia Dugdale is leader of Scottish Labour.