Greg Clark is Financial Secretary to the Treasury and MP for Tunbridge Wells. Follow Greg on Twitter.
“Labour’s current muddled message would take several confusing paragraphs, filled with caveats and clarifications, covered in scribbles and crossings-out. Osborne has cut too far and too fast, they say, but we will stick to his plans. The Tory approach to cutting social security is wrong, though many of their underlying principles are right. Many of their cuts are as cruel as they are unnecessary, but we will not reverse them.”
Jones is a hardliner for whom no Labour leader can be left-wing enough, but his complaint actually plays into the Opposition’s hands – by suggesting that they have changed, when clearly they haven’t. The Shadow Cabinet certainly seem incapable of giving a straight answer on just about any policy question, but anyone who thinks they’ve swapped the red flag for white one is deluding themselves. Whether on the economy, welfare reform, education, localism or immigration, it’s just the same old Labour Party with added confusion.
In the face of determined action from reforming ministers like George Osborne, Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Gove, Eric Pickles and Theresa May, their shadows have been left scrabbling for words. But there’s been no change of mind and certainly no change of heart. In fact, what we’ve seen in the last few weeks doesn’t even count as a change of political strategy. As media scrutiny becomes more intense, it is not surprising that certain indefensible positions have been abandoned, but that’s just tactics. The contradictory statements we’ve heard from the Labour frontbench can be interpreted as a sign of panic, but they also provide a smokescreen for their true intentions.
We’ve been here before. When Labour was in Government, they repeatedly signalled their intent to reform the public sector, while quietly strangling any genuine attempts to do so. Take welfare reform, for instance. In 1997 Frank Field was appointed as the Minister for Welfare Reform, with a brief to ‘think the unthinkable.’ Within a year he was forced out by Gordon Brown, then Chancellor. It would be 2005 before reform got underway again under John Hutton, who commissioned the Freud Report. However, when Gordon Brown became Prime Minister in 2007, Hutton was replaced with Peter Hain and the Freud Report was left to gather dust. As the economic situation worsened, a belated attempt was made in 2008 to revive reform under James Purnell, but, frustrated with the Prime Minister, he resigned the following year and was replaced by Yvette Cooper.
The lesson here is that every time the Brownites (who now have uncontested control of Labour Party) have an opportunity to reverse ferret on reform, they will take it. Unwilling to develop new ideas even in opposition, the chances of Miliband, Balls and Cooper pursuing meaningful reform in office are zero. But what about external pressures? Any future Labour government would have to operate under tighter financial constraints than the last Labour government, thus some people might think they’d be forced down the path of reform. This is to forget the essential difference between them and us.
Faced with the need to make massive savings in public spending, our instinct has been to give power away – providing local public service providers the freedom that they need to do more with less. Labour’s instincts, though, run in the opposite direction. If difficult decisions have to be made, they certainly wouldn’t trust others to make them – even if on matters best determined locally. Furthermore, without unlimited funds to buy off their key supporters, a future Labour Government would placate the likes of Len McCluskey by killing-off reforms to order.
Ed Balls, has already said that he would borrow more if he were Chancellor, but without reform, the pressure on the public purse would only intensify, pushing this country even closer to the cliff edge. That is why the current Government is committed both to deficit reduction and to the reform of our public services. Three years in, the deficit has been reduced by a third, the welfare system is being reformed, choice and rigour is returning to our schools, power has been given back to local communities and immigration is being controlled.
This is a record to be proud of. But these achievements are not irreversible. In fact, let us be under no illusion that Labour – if given the chance – would indeed reverse them. So, don’t be taken in by the toing and froing of recent weeks. With the Brownites in charge, Labour’s position is all too clear: the new policy is the old policy.