Shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Chris Leslie. Photograph: BBC News.
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Labour's axeman puts the left-wing case for deficit reduction

Chris Leslie argues that progressives have a duty to prove they can be fiscally responsible.

After the return of economic growth, few now recall that the next government, whether Conservative or Labour, will implement some of the most severe cuts to public services in modern history. That these reductions are likely to take a place at a time of rising prosperity and after some departments have already been cut by 25 per cent, will make them even harder to defend.

The speech today by shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, Chris Leslie, Labour's axeman in chief, was a reminder of the challenges the opposition will face. If it is to meet its pledge to eliminate the current deficit by the end of the next parliament and to reduce the national debt as a share of GDP (while leaving room to borrow for capital spending), Labour will have to make major cuts to these services it does not choose to prioritise (expect the NHS, childcare, skills and employment to be favoured).

As Leslie said in his speech:

I’m not heading into this expecting popularity. Quite the opposite.

All government departments in the next Labour Government will have to face fundamental questions as never before.

We won’t be able to undo the cuts that the have been felt in recent years. And I know that this will be disappointing for many people.

A more limited pot of money will have to be spent on a smaller number of priorities. Lower priorities will get less.

The key policy announcement was that Labour would not hold one-year spending reviews of the kind recently introduced by George Osborne (almost entirely for political reasons), instead always setting budgets on a multi-year basis. In turn, Whitehall will be expected to provide public bodies and organisations under its stewardship with the same longer-term certainties. Leslie criticised instances of "short-term budget decisions that cost more in the long run":

·         "The closure of fourteen prisons at the Ministry of Justice, creating a shortage of capacity and provoking Ministers to later change tack and commission new ‘Titan’ prison projects which appear unfunded and may even worsen re-offending.

·         "A decision to withdraw the A14 upgrade in 2010 as “unaffordable” at £1.3 billion – yet the resurrection of the same scheme in 2013 now costing £1.5 billion.

·         "The roads maintenance budget for local authorities cut by a fifth in 2013, followed by an about-turn in 2014 with a complex ‘Potholes Challenge Fund’ assessed by Whitehall civil servants on the basis of bureaucratic bids submitted from town halls – hardly progress towards localism.

·         "And not forgetting the bedroom tax, which not only causes great hardship but merely shunts costs from local authority housing benefit and into the more expensive private rented sector element of housing benefit."

But the most intellectually notable part of the speech was Leslie's attempt to make the progressive case for deficit reduction. As he argued, it is those on the centre-left, as the champions of a social democratic state, who have a duty to prove that they are fiscally responsible. The belief that the public sector is invariably wasteful gives the right the licence they need to permanently roll back services.

He said:

Why does it matters so much to get the books into balance?

Because if you believe that as a society we achieve more by coming together and pooling our resources to deliver services from which we all benefit, then we have a responsibility to prove to the taxpayer that this can be done efficiently and effectively.

Public service budgets have got to be sustainable.

We need to continually demonstrate to taxpayers that they can trust the public realm to manage services well.

The alternative risks eroding public confidence and an opt-out culture of private provision for those who can afford it - and sub-standard services for the rest.

There’s no reason why we cannot create decent quality services and a fair society while living within our means.

This is why I believe those on the progressive centre-left of politics should embrace the goal of balancing the books. There is nothing left-wing about running a deficit.

If Labour is to avoid an internal war over cuts in the next parliament, it is an argument he will have to make repeatedly.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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At Labour conference, activists and politicians can't avoid each other – but try their best to "unsee"

My week, from havoc in the Labour family to a sublime act of real-life trolling – via a shopping centre.

I like to take a favourite novel with me to party conference for when it all gets too much, and this year I took China Miéville’s The City & the City. It takes place in the fictional cities of Besžel and Ul Qoma, two metropolises that exist in the same geographic space but must dutifully “unsee” one another or risk the sanction of Breach, the secret police force. It turned out to be a better allegory for what was going on outside my hotel than I had expected.

Labour, as I don’t need to tell you, is badly split on almost everything. Now that the acrid leadership race has reached its inevitable conclusion, activists and politicians on both sides are operating as if they had a standing duty to “unsee” each other. The atmosphere feels a bit like a family dinner after a blazing row: everyone is aware that things have been said that will take years to be forgiven, if they ever will be, so the conversation is largely banal and superficial.

The exception is the conference floor, the only place where Corbynites and Corbynsceptics cannot unsee each other, which was therefore the scene of several acrimonious confrontations after tricky votes. It’s difficult to predict where Labour goes from here. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) is largely against a split, but its members surely can’t spend the next four years dutifully pretending not to see one another,or their activists?

 

Chaos and confusion

Would it have been better for Jeremy Corbyn if his defeated challenger, Owen Smith, had done a little bit better against him – not just in the final vote but throughout the contest? All summer, Smith distinguished himself only through his frequent gaffes, to the point where it felt more appropriate to describe him as a participant in the leadership race rather than a combatant.

The difficulty for both Corbyn and his critics is that his opponents in the PLP have no clear leader. As a result, their dissatisfaction is amorphous, rather than being productively channelled into a set of specific demands or criticisms, which Corbyn could then reject or accept. The overwhelming feeling about his leadership among the PLP is that “something must be done”. So whenever an MP embarks on a freelance assault – Margaret Hodge’s no-confidence motion, say, or Clive Betts’s attempt to bring back elections to the shadow cabinet – the majority leaps on the scheme. Corbyn’s critics reason that at least it’s something.

Although fractious Labour MPs might not see it that way, the decision not to restore shadow cabinet elections helps their cause. Taking away the leader’s ability to choose his ministerial team was a recipe for chaos – chaos that would, rightly, have been blamed on them.

 

Custody rights

If the Labour family would be, as I suspect, better off seeking a divorce, there is an irony that one of the things that they all agree on is the fate of the kids. The party is entirely united behind its leader in his opposition to grammar schools – as is almost every serious thinker on education policy, from Policy Exchange on the right through to Melissa Benn on the left.

Still, Labour will encounter a visceral type of resistance to its stance from the alumni of grammars, who, regardless of what the studies show, attribute their success to their attendance at selective schools. I can understand that. Although I went to a comprehensive, the emotional pull of one’s upbringing is hard to escape. I can, for example, read all the studies that show that children in single-parent families do worse – but I find it hard to experience it as anything other than an awful attack on my mother, to whom I owe everything.

Winning the argument over schooling will require a sensitive ear to those for whom the argument against the schools seems like an attack on their parents.

 

Pudding and pie

One of the nice things about being from a single-parent family is that I don’t have to admit to flaws – merely to unresolved kinks that would have been ironed out had my absent father stuck around. One such kink is my capacity for procrastination, which
results in my making decisions too often at the last minute.

This always comes back to bite me at party conference. At dinner events, I frequently put off picking my meal options to the point that I have to eat whatever the kitchen has left. At one meal this year, I was lucky enough to have three courses of pudding, but at another, my hastily cobbled-together starter seemed to consist entirely of pesto, taramasalata and rocket.

 

Too late

The best thing about party conference is sharing a panel with a politician you don’t know very much about who turns out to be highly impressive. It’s particularly cheering now, when my optimism about politics is at a low ebb. I try to meet them properly for coffee afterwards, although because of my capacity for putting things off, that doesn’t always happen.

Last year, I was chairing a particularly testy fringe on the Israel-Palestine conflict. The then shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, was running late and an MP from the 2015 intake had to field all the questions on her own. She did this with immense poise and knowledge, while clearly having a sense of how unhelpful some of the louder, angrier voices were – during one lengthy monologue from the floor, she turned and rolled her eyes at me. Her name was Jo Cox.

I kept meaning to get to know her, but I never got around to ringing her office, and now I never will.

 

Banter and bargains

A colleague alerts me to a sublime act of real-life trolling. When Everton opened a second branch of its team store in Liverpool’s shopping centre, it picked an innocuous name: Everton Two. Innocuous, that is, until you realise that the shopping centre is called Liverpool One. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories