Chris Leslie interview: Labour has to "get really serious" about public service reform

The new shadow chancellor says his party needs to challenge the "traditional ways" of delivering services". 

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Chris Leslie has been thrown in at the deep end. When Labour was defeated in May 2010, the then chancellor, Alistair Darling, stayed on as George Osborne’s shadow until Alan Johnson took over five months later. This time, with the defeat of Ed Balls in May, there was no interim figure available. It is Leslie, who previously served as shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, who now holds the second most senior position on Labour’s front bench.

“There is an opportunity for me to address the difficult questions Labour has to confront,” Leslie, 43, tells me when I meet him in his Nottingham East constituency. The centrist minister, who was first elected in 1997 (before losing in 2005), warns against those who cite the successes of the SNP and Greens in support of a left-wing programme. “We can’t just brush under the carpet that two million more people voted Conservative than Labour,” he says. We would be totally wrong to not be focusing on why people voted Conservative - that is the predominant problem.

For Leslie, this means reassuring voters that Labour “genuinely wants to have sound stewardship of the public finances” and “being really serious about public service reform”. He adds: “Sometimes that is going to be challenging to the traditional ways of delivering those services . . . Some of the structures are very outdated and duplicative. We need to declutter. There’s a strong bit of spring cleaning that’s still needed. It’s not just closing down quangos, it’s also saying, ‘Well, 43 police authorities, 300-plus local authorities.’ There’s lots of questions we’ve got to start asking about proper consolidation.” He praises “aspects” of the government’s Troubled Families programme, “where you go in and you look at the whole system and don’t just treat the symptom of a housing problem or a health problem”.

On taxation, Leslie tells me that “everything is now under review” and says that the 50p rate has “moved off the agenda” (“I personally think the priority is going to be whether the 45p rate is going to fall to 40p”). It’s a stance that contrasts with that of the Labour leadership candidate Yvette Cooper, who has continued to argue for a higher top rate. Leslie’s politics are closely aligned with those of Liz Kendall but it was the shadow home secretary he nominated.

Leslie praises Cooper as a “strong communicator” who is “strong on economics” and has “experience at cabinet level”, but adds that Kendall has “some really important ideas in terms of modernising not just the Labour Party but the country”. And Andy Burnham, the front-runner, is “a good, strong, authentic candidate with great grass-roots appeal . . . I might not give as much support to Jeremy Corbyn as others will.”

Earlier in the day, Leslie and I visited a food bank in his constituency where a Trussell Trust volunteer told us that in-work poverty accounts for 24 per cent of visits in the region.

“There’s no easy way of suddenly turning off the tap on tax credits and thinking you’re going to get this sudden rise in wages,” the shadow chancellor says later. He questions whether Osborne will “be driven by a sensible and balanced approach to getting towards a surplus, which everybody would want to achieve”, or whether “his own leadership ambitions are now pulling him towards proving his neocon credentials to the back benches”.

The amiable Leslie is expected to remain shadow chancellor if Cooper wins the leadership (Burnham’s choice is Rachel Reeves). His unflappable style is regarded as an asset as Labour seeks to rebuild fiscal credibility. Would he like to continue doing the job? “I’d like to stay doing an economic brief but it’s a team sport . . . We’ll see what happens.”

George Eaton is deputy editor of the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 01 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Crisis Europe