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9 October 2023

It’s Rachel Reeves’s party now

The shadow chancellor mixed fiscal discipline with class war. Both went down equally well in a changed Labour Party.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Barely two seconds into her Labour conference speech, Rachel Reeves had already deployed the phrase “economic credibility”. There were whoops and applause. The next huge cheer from the hall at the party’s annual gathering in Liverpool erupted when the shadow chancellor promised that any tax or spending changes would be subject to an “independent forecast from the Office for Budget Responsibility”.

In a setting where paeans to the NHS and digs at the Murdoch press were once reliable greatest hits, this felt different. The fiscal discipline imposed on Labour’s spending plans since Reeves became shadow chancellor two years ago was the new fan favourite.

Daring to repeat the lament of her internal critics who claim she’s simply making “the same choices as the Tory party” by refusing to spend more, she said: “Economic responsibility does not detract from advances for working people. It is the foundation upon which progress is built. Hard choices, but Labour choices.”

“Iron discipline”, “iron-clad fiscal rules” – the ferrous speech was nevertheless alloyed with some class-war passion. Reeves looked critics of Labour’s plan to tax private schools straight in the eye, championing the policy (over which doubts have been raised in recent weeks) and challenging the Tories’ claim to the mantle of aspiration: “If the party that has herded children into portacabins while school roofs crumble wants a fight about who has the most aspiration for our children then I say: Bring. It. On.”

The entire hall rose in a standing ovation – one of seven throughout the speech. An audience member tipped over their chair in ecstasy. (And there were whispers among some that the hall had just witnessed the speech of a future Labour leader.)

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Reeves even went for Tory ministers’ private jet habit. While Labour has been wary of attacking Rishi Sunak’s wealth and privilege, it has found a new confidence in talking about class. Breaking the “class ceiling” is one of its five missions, and figures in Keir Starmer’s team were delighted to see the description “working class” appear on a wordcloud of voter associations with the leader shown during his interview on the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg yesterday (8 October).

Once dismissed as “boring, snoring Rachel Reeves” by a former BBC Newsnight editor, and underestimated by the private schoolboys who she would beat at chess when she was a schoolgirl, Reeves showed a more dynamic style in this speech. Power bob glossed, royal blue double-breasted jacket buttoned, she allowed herself both genuine grins (“I intend to address this hall as Britain’s first female chancellor of the Exchequer”) and a voice deepening to a threatening boom at the end of punchy passages (“Be in no doubt: the biggest risk to Britain’s economy is five more years of the Conservative Party”).

According to Labour insiders, the “strategic framework” for this conference is answering the question: “Why Labour?” Each shadow cabinet member is supposed to use that challenge to frame their speech. But with Reeves guarding the budget, few substantial policy announcements to flesh out the party’s vision are possible. Reeves herself worked around this by announcing a “crackdown” on waste and fraud – a classic focus of parties with little to spend – using a new Infrastructure Acceleration Unit (to make sure projects like HS2 come in on time and budget), and a Covid corruption commissioner to claw back money lost fraudulently through pandemic schemes.

The party believes it could save £4bn through these and similar measures, but it’s clear the main benefit is intended to be political: Sunak was chancellor throughout the pandemic, and prides himself on his reputation as a numbers guy. While his performance during Covid-19 is still seen positively by voters, there is residual anger at the “crony” culture of that period, and a feeling that the taxpayer is now paying for the government’s mistakes.

Labour is aiming to win the next election on the economy, so Reeves’s worldview runs through its entire platform like an iron rod. Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, even says he sees his job as part of the “economics brief”. Shadow frontbench teams may grumble or joke that they can’t commit to any new policies within such tight rules, but the discipline has stuck. It’s Rachel Reeves’s party now.

[See also: The Reeves doctrine: Labour’s plan for power]

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