Politics

Rachel Reeves' plan to 'rebuild Britain' applauded by experts – but can Labour offer real change?

Rachel Reeves' speech at the Labour Party Conference has been applauded – but will the plans go far enough? With people suffering through a climate and cost of living crisis, experts fear tougher action is needed

Rachel Reeves

Rachel Reeves speaking at the Labour party conference. Image: BBC

Rachel Reeves said Labour will “rebuild Britain” following the “wreckage of Tory misrule” in a speech at the party conference which was met with overwhelming applause from the hall. But after more than a decade of austerity and amid a cost of living crisis, experts fear more action will be needed to see real change.

“Do you and your family feel better off than you did 13 years ago?” Reeves asked. “Do our hospitals, our schools and our police work better than when the Conservatives came to power 13 years ago? Frankly, does anything in Britain work better than when they came into office 13 years ago?”

The shadow chancellor was even endorsed by the former Bank of England governor Mark Carney after the speech. He said: “Rachel Reeves is serious economist. She began her career at the Bank of England, so she understands the big picture.

“But, crucially, she understands the economics of work, of place and family. And, look, it is beyond time we put her energy and ideas into action.”

Experts have welcomed her pledges to strengthen workers’ rights and ensure the national minimum wage “takes into account the real cost of living”. She promised a focus on economic responsibility, creating new jobs and growing the economy.

Labour has committed to end the loophole which exempts private schools from paying some taxes if elected next year and impose tougher windfall taxes, helping to rebuild the economy.

George Dibb, head of IPPR’s Centre for Economic Justice, told The Big Issue: “Rachel Reeves rightly set out a vision for economic growth that would tangibly benefit families around the country. 

“Her pledge to introduce a genuine living wage, based on the real living costs faced by families around the country, reflects the policies of IPPR’s Commission on Economic Justice. This would be a much-needed helping hand to families struggling through the current inflation crisis. And her plan to strengthen workers’ rights and protections from day one would increase the economic security of millions.”

Rachel Reeves said Labour would speed up the planning process for key infrastructure projects and encourage business investment. She also said Labour would crack down down on ministers’ use of private jets, slash spending on consultants and recovering money lost to fraud during the pandemic through a new anti-corruption commissioner.

The IPPR also welcomed Labour’s long-term strategy to “grow the green industries of tomorrow”, arguing that the UK must match the ambition of the USA and EU in the race to secure the economic benefits of net zero.

But there are fears that more must be done to rebuild the social security system and help those hardest hit by over a decade of cuts to public services.

The chief economist for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Alfie Stirling, said: “Labour are right to emphasise the need to rebuild economic security, but this can’t be done without rebuilding our social foundations. Business investment may be the lifeblood of a growing economy, but social security and public services provide the heartbeat.”

Universal credit claimants do not have enough money to live. The IPPR has found single claimants are left with a shortfall of £35 each week once they’ve bought the basics like food and toiletries. This rises to £84 after housing costs and potential deductions. 

These figures match those from the Trussell Trust and Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which have found that nine in 10 people on universal credit are going without the essentials because they can’t afford them. The charities are calling for an ‘essentials guarantee’ so that people can afford to survive.

Stirling added: “Just as the minimum wage should be a real living wage, so too should universal credit guarantee that no one falling on hard times goes without essentials. The ‘essentials guarantee’ would ensure that no one in this country starts their day without a warm home or food on the table, and it would provide the launch pad for a stronger, more secure economy for the 2020s.”

Rachel Reeves said Labour would provide critical infrastructure for energy, housing and transport. She pledged to make the UK a clean energy superpower, create new green jobs across the country and provide people with a sense of security and hope through economic and energy stability.

Dr Ashok Sinha, chief executive climate charity Ashden, said: “We warmly welcome such commitment. The action taken globally between now and 2030 will determine we whether stay below 1.5 degrees celsius of warming, so the actions of next parliament will be definitive.”

“Speed is of the essence,” Dr Sinha added, “and the devil is definitely in the detail of investment, supporting those skilled organisations that are already in a position to scale up, training the necessary workers so they have the skills for this rollout of technologies, and following through on commitments with no holds barred. 

“We must have everything in place in the next five years in terms of decarbonisation in order to be anywhere close to meeting the targets which the current government’s Climate Change Committee and climate scientists have stated are necessary in order to avoid economic, environmental and social crisis.”

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Momentum, the grassroots left-wing campaign group set up to support Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, expressed disappointment following the speech.

The group’s co-chair, Hilary Schan, welcomes pledges on housebuilding and windfall taxes but added: “As millions lose faith in the Tories, the question on everyone’s lips is: will Labour offer real change? Based on today’s speech, the answer is: some, but not enough.”

“Once again, Reeves clung to outdated and damaging economic orthodoxies: that the wealthiest can pay no more, that we cannot have the investment the country is crying out for, that key public services should remain in private hands,” she said.

“A Labour government which leaves the fundamentals of this failed system in place won’t just fail to fix Britain’s huge problems – it will be blamed for its failure.”

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