3 Bs for Rachel Reeves’ speech: Building; Betting; Bridging

by Jonathan Todd

The Labour party and the rest of the country want the same thing: big change. The country knows the essential precondition of this: getting the economy right. We look to Rachel Reeves for that.

Jess Philips spoke movingly at political therapy last week at 1000 Trades about the pervasive hopelessness that she encounters among the electorate. The deep struggles in a country where nothing works. The exhausting dysfunction hardwired into many facets of national life.

“People have had enough,” Rachel Reeves told the FT over the weekend. This feeling, while it has grown over the 13 years of Tory misrule, is not new.

It powered the surge towards Yes in Scotland’s 2014 referendum. Breaking up the UK has always seemed to me, among other things, a tremendously risky path: divorces can get messy. Yes appeared much less so for those gripped by hopelessness: with so little stake in the UK, the alternative was a worthwhile gamble.

Almost a decade later, the tide started to go out on the SNP last week in Rutherglen and Hamilton West. But not on the hope for big change that has transformed Scottish politics. Few want a status quo of grinding poverty and thwarted opportunity.

Labour needs to get the UK building to meet this appetite for change. Building houses, life science labs, wind farms: all the infrastructure that the UK needs for coming decades.

Building should be a leitmotif of the Reeves speech. Uncut will count the number of building references.

But building HS2? Reeves, during her FT interview, “hints that Labour will not go into the general election promising to reinstate the northern leg of the line. Fiscal responsibility is one of her mantras.”

It compromises Labour’s focus on building to not keep alive the train line that will give the UK north of Birmingham the transport capacity and connections it needs. We all know the difficulties being created by the government, such as allowing compulsory purchases for HS2 to lapse, but “we can’t because of the Tories” is a line with limited mileage for Labour.

How large-scale change really happens is the subtitle of a book that Rajiv Shah will, coincidentally, publish during party conference. The author – who has helped vaccinate nearly a billion children, lead high-pressure responses to the Haiti earthquake and against Ebola, dramatically expanded American Covid-19 testing at the height of the pandemic – promises to reveal, “the power of the big bet mindset: a belief that seeking to solve problems boldly, rather than settle for incremental improvements, will attract partners with the capacity to achieve transformational change”.

Imagine the power of a UK government with a big bet mindset. This might be unsettling for those with a Ming vase mindset. Roy Jenkins described Tony Blair’s task in getting Labour into power in 1997 as “like a man carrying a priceless Ming vase across a highly polished floor”.

The Ming vase mindset says: no sudden moves, no surprises, no bets. Only diligent reassurance, in the face of an electorate that has so often believed the false promises of the Tories, will birth a Labour government – with Reeves as the UK’s first female Chancellor.

Reeves had the Ming vase on the brain when she asked to meet the FT for lunch at Bettys Café Tea Rooms in Harrogate. “It’s the kind of place you might pick if you were,” observed Jim Pickard in his write-up, “trying to reassure the world of your solid, non-revolutionary beliefs.”

But Reeves is also making big bets. Elsewhere in the FT, we read of Labour’s National Wealth Fund: “that would exceed US president Joe Biden’s similar Inflation Reduction Act on a gross domestic product per capita basis.”

This is kind of big bet on building that seeks the big change that the UK so deeply needs. Reeves will, though, diligently cradle the Ming vase. Her speech is, therefore, a high wire act of bridging.

From mindset to mindset. From conference hall to the wider country. From what is needed to win the election to what is required to bring big change.

It isn’t a Ming vase that will bring hope to our hopeless. Only what is inside it. Which must be bets big enough to build real change on the arid terrain left by the Tories.

Reeves does not need to pull big bets from her Ming vase in Liverpool this week. But she needs to leave enough space to do so when she gets to Downing Street.

Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut

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