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27 June 2022

“We don’t want to see NHS strikes”: Wes Streeting and Rachel Reeves on Labour in an age of inflation

The shadow chancellor and shadow health secretary open up about the opposition’s plan for the economy.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Rachel Reeves and Wes Streeting are on a tour of Boris Johnson’s imagination. And it looks very much like a hole in the ground in West Yorkshire.

On a recent visit to Leeds General Infirmary, two of the biggest hitters in Labour’s shadow cabinet inspected the area earmarked for one of the Conservative government’s so-far mythical “40 new hospitals” (as promised at the 2019 general election).

“At the moment, the only place these 40 new hospitals seem to exist is in the Prime Minister’s imagination,” quipped Streeting, the shadow health secretary. Boris Johnson and the Health Secretary Sajid Javid were on this same spot last October, beaming on the site of what should now be turning into a new children’s hospital.

“The mound of dirt they stood on with their shovels and their hard hats and their high-vis is still just that: a mound of dirt,” said Streeting.

We spoke over the phone (rail strikes had scuppered my visit to Leeds), before the Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton by-election results. It has been a tricky time for the shadow cabinet. Some frontbenchers disobeyed Keir Starmer over the rail strikes, whose instinct I hear was to take a more robust stance against them, after he asked them not to join picket lines.

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Streeting landed himself in trouble with the Labour leadership by saying he would have voted for industrial action had he been a rail worker. He later reportedly apologised to the shadow cabinet for any negative press attention these comments received.

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Nursing unions have hinted at strike action if they don’t get a better deal – so far they’ve been offered a 3 per cent pay rise. Would Streeting support them striking?

Nurses are still waiting for the outcome of the pay review body’s recommendations before deciding whether or not to strike, he said, but added “I am concerned about pay in the NHS, particularly for staff on lower incomes”, referring to the “absolute scandal” of food banks in hospitals for struggling staff. “I also think it’s a real cause for concern that people are leaving the profession because they feel they can get a better deal elsewhere… We’ve got to be mindful of the retention pressure.”

He called on the government to take this issue “seriously”, and praised health unions for having “engaged very constructively and responsibly” with the pay review process. “The key thing I hope the government learns a lesson on from the railway strikes is that if you treat staff with respect, if you get them around the table with employers early, you can avert industrial action.”

Is Labour preparing for industrial action among hospital staff? After all, I hear one of the reasons shadow cabinet members have been reluctant to condemn the rail strikes is because of the prospect of walkouts by nurses and teachers, who garner more public sympathy.

“I would just say no one wants to see strike action in the NHS,” said Streeting. “I don’t think that’s what the staff want, it’s certainly not what the patients want, and it’s not what we in the Labour Party want to see either… the key thing is for government to treat staff with respect: we can’t go from clapping for the NHS workers to slapping them in pay discussions… no one wants to see the NHS going through what the railways have gone through.”

Reeves, the shadow chancellor, toured the hospital with her colleague in the constituency she represents. She’s focusing on how underinvestment in public services is a waste of money – and a drag on growth. One local example is how Leeds hospital managers have waited so long to put their plan for a new hospital into action that they’ve had to resubmit their proposals to the Department of Health.

“What a waste of time and tax money, because inevitably, building and construction costs have gone up massively since the project was originally commissioned,” said Reeves.

Labour’s plan for the economy, she told me, is to “deliver the economic growth that is needed to improve living standards… and to ensure that the tax receipts that come with strong growth are used to better fund our public services”.

How does Labour plan to do what successive governments have failed to do since the 2008 crash and achieve strong growth?

Reeves has some ideas – there’s the £28bn-a-year climate investment pledge, announced at Labour’s 2021 autumn conference, to put towards new jobs and industries (in what she described as “serious levelling up”). There’s also an aim to “buy, make and sell more in Britain” – being less reliant on imported gas by producing more energy in the country, for example. And Jim O’Neill, of “Northern Powerhouse” fame, has been commissioned by Labour to review how to support more British start-ups.

She even mentioned Brexit: a subject I’ve been told by a Labour politician close to Keir Starmer that the party has been “terrified” of talking about. “Make Brexit work, not just get Brexit done,” is Labour’s line, and Reeves has a list of problems to sort: striking a “veterinary deal” to reduce paperwork on food exports between the UK and EU, and making touring in the EU easier for British musicians and artists.

Yet the opposition’s top team is still grappling with what it would do in government to bring inflation down. When I asked about this, Reeves said Labour would have targeted the proceeds of the windfall tax on oil and gas firms – a Labour idea the government took five months to accept – at households on modest incomes. She also emphasised that the National Insurance hike is the “wrong tax at the wrong time”, and something she would not have done as chancellor.

Labour has been making these arguments for months, which meant the party was ahead of the curve as the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, finally conceded the need for a windfall tax in May. Yet now the inflation rate is at a 40-year high, potentially leading to a summer of strikes, the party will need some fresher lines.

Conference season will be the time to unveil new ideas, I hear, and Reeves hints at something she would like Labour to remedy. “One of the most staggering facts as we entered the pandemic, in terms of economics, was that 11.5 million people had less than £100 worth of savings,” she said.

“It’s hardly surprising that people on modest incomes are looking for a pay rise, because they’ve got no savings, nothing to fall back on, and now inflation’s going through the roof. The government blaming working people, which is what they seem to be doing at the moment, for high inflation – they’re looking at the wrong culprit.”

[See also: Keir Starmer’s rail strikes stance betrays those who need Labour]