British moral strategic leadership: Previewing Rachel Reeves speech to Labour Conference 2021

by Jonathan Todd

Economics is about storytelling as much as numbers. If the story persuades, the numbers do too. There is artistry to the dismal science.

Rachel Reeves knows the numbers. A former Bank of England economist, she knows how the economy works. A political realist, she knows what seats will sustain a Labour government.

The Labour sums need to add up. In a new book “Labour’s reset: the path back to power” that Uncut will be launching at Labour conference this week, we make a proposal for how Labour can finance a new set of spending commitments.

But the Shadow Chancellor’s conference speech is not an occasion for a forensic articulation of staying in the black. It is a time to tell the country a new story about itself.

This story might feature improved childcare, better homes, and a new relationship with business – potential building blocks of a Labour proposition that are articulated in the new Uncut book.

We do not pretend that all the ingredients that Reeves needs are in our book. There are two further that she might add: her own moral clarity and memorable phrases. Both of which Gordon Brown excelled in.

Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime. Brown coined this resonate couplet from opposition.

The white heat of technology. With this phrase, Keir Starmer’s favourite Labour leader told a new national story from opposition.

Even if the levers of real change are exclusive to government, the language of politics can be shaped from opposition. But now our politics is dominated by government phrases: Levelling Up, Global Britain, Build Back Better.

Levelling Up. The intension and symbolism matter more politically than the outcomes. It is not about hard metrics like the Gini coefficient, it is about showing that the Tories care about the North and the Midlands, with this sentiment often embodied in shiny, new buildings.

Global Britain. In policy terms, even more vapid than Levelling Up. In political terms, it is about backing Britain. Who can be opposed to that?

Build Back Better. I think I heard Ed Miliband say this prior to it being a slogan of Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. Before it could really become Labour language, it was the title of the government’s growth plan. When the Tories aren’t shaping the language of politics, they are expropriating potential Labour terminology.

Get Brexit Done. Amid a chronic shortage of HGV drivers, panic buying at petrol stations, and sharply rising gas prices, we more rarely now hear this classic than experience the shortcomings of the prime minister’s Brexit deal. Nonetheless, as this phrase helped to consign Labour to our biggest general election defeat since 1935, it is indicative of Boris Johnson’s capacity to use language to shape politics.

It is time for Labour to cut through his government’s incompetence, exacerbated by his Brexit deal, and remake the weather with our own language.

It wasn’t so long ago that an omnishambles (an example of Labour language that cut through) was messing up the taxation of pies. The Tories have since dug us into deeper holes, but Tory failings are never enough for Labour to win. These failings need to combine with a reassurance – which Brown provided as shadow chancellor – that Labour can do better.

Brown approached that challenge, as he approaches his latest challenge of seeking to vaccinate the world, with tremendous moral clarity. The investment that Brown now seeks (£35bn to vaccinate the world) would unlock $9tn for the world economy. The failure to realise this tremendous return on investment is, sadly, a major sign of our heartless dysfunction. If democracies were the rational decision-making entities that we wish them, they would not have waited so long to act on our climate emergency that the future of humanity now hinges on China’s decisions.

Belatedly taking the steps to rise to this challenge will be a motor of extraordinary economic change and opportunity. Reeves must tell a story not only of the moral imperative of these actions but the tangible benefits that they will bring to Britain: how the City of London can power a green industrial revolution; how our farm and food standards can save our countryside and reduce our waistlines; how investment in gigafactories can again make us the best place in the world to make cars; how we can put solar panels on every new home and in outer space to create abundant energy and pump-prime British industry; and how we can create careers of meaning, dignity and decent pay for everyone.

More than ever before, however, we confront global problems. No one will be safe from Covid-19 till all are safe. Carbon emissions anywhere in the world add to climate chaos everywhere.

Global Moral Strategic Leadership. This is what Mia Amor Mottley, prime minister of Barbados and leader of the Barbados Labour Party, called for in a powerful speech to the UN this week.

Global because our problems are global. Moral because we must do the right things. Strategic because we need prioritisation in tackling these problems.

Barbados is a country that will only continue to exist if global warming can be restricted to about half the amount currently projected. We either act now to stop the sea covering Barbados or get ready for its climate refugees.

British Moral Strategic Leadership. How we will prosper in a world working together to tackle its shared problems. Let’s hope we get some of this from Reeves.

Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut


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6 Responses to “British moral strategic leadership: Previewing Rachel Reeves speech to Labour Conference 2021”

  1. Tafia says:

    Lisa Nandy’s speech was very middle class and trite. Very ‘paper tiger’. Does she really think that China and Russia give a damn what she says? They both know we will keep buying – be it gas or flat screen TVs, and are so addicted that any trade war will seriously damage ordinary people in this country. Likewise the Taliban. Does she think the Mullahs are interested what an infidel and non-believer thinks? Especially as she is a woman and in their eyes her word is only worth half that of a man. They are only scared of war – and they know we do not have the political stomach for another go.

    I see the head of the BBC has been given a 16% pay rise (£75k) by the board, and now earns 5 times what the PM salary is.

  2. Anne says:

    There is a detailed account of Rachel’s proposals in The Sunday Times. Excellent.

  3. Tafia says:

    Reeves made a good visionary speech however it lacked any sort of detail. For example saying you will ditch Buisness Rates is all well and good, but not saying how you will then replace £31bn that it raises UK-wide (£25bn in England). Nor how councils in England – who now get to keep half of it, will be able to make up the shortfall (unless they raise Council Tax massively). Likewise bringing in a “fair taxation system”. I doubt there are two people on this site who would agree what a fair taxation system means or what it should be. Spending an extra £28bn on climate measures? Very nice – but where and how are you going to raise the £28bn to fund it?

    Other than absolutely no detail, and spending time too much time drifting into non-Treasury related areas and concerns, it was a good speech though.

  4. A.J. says:

    Wilson surrounded himself with economic experts – and wasn’t exactly a back of an envelope man himself. Come the end of the 70s I expect they were sipping brandy and watching the unions lining up to empty buckets of s***t over Callaghan.
    Wasn’t Ed Balls supposed to be economically literate? From what the likes of Jeremy Warner tell us in the ‘DT’ the whole world is more or less up s**t creek without a paddle.

  5. John P Reid says:

    When the mock Movie Band Spinal tap had tension over their guitarist and Singer disagreeing on stage
    It came too a head with the guitarist going
    And the singers Wife stage managed their show with the new band not rowing

    The band feeling they couldn’t play any songs The ex guitarist wrote

    So their next show was a collection of nothingness proving a point they got on with each other ,despite playing nothing but tambourine solos

    That’s labour conference now
    ———————————
    Tafia Spot on about lisa nandy

    but it was playing to the student politics of those who long to be special advisers
    Haven’t heard Rachel reeves but hopefully the shadow Home Secretary might be interesting

  6. Peter Martin says:

    “Rachel Reeves knows the numbers. A former Bank of England economist, she knows how the economy works”

    Bank of England economists haven’t got the best of track records. The 2008 GFC wasn’t supposed to happen. She might know how the economy works but is she prepared to explain it to the electorate?

    As Yanis Varoufakis always likes to point out if a Government reduces its spending it reduces its income. If it reduces our spending by increasing our taxes it also reduces its potential income from that spending which offsets the increase that it made in the first place.

    So a round of austerity to reduce the govt deficit which is implicit in her wish for a tight fiscal policy might be useful to reduce inflation but it won’t do anything to reduce the deficit.

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