RISHI SUNAK’S Budget speech depicted a country bouncing back fast from the Covid crisis.
This rosy picture is markedly disingenuous. As his Labour counterpart Rachel Reeves pointed out, the faster recovery than comparable economies the Chancellor boasts of is simply the result of the deeper recession Britain experienced — itself the consequence of the Conservatives’ disastrous mishandling of the pandemic.
Reeves was able to respond robustly to the Chancellor’s absurd optimism.
But Labour’s ability to rally support for an alternative depends on challenging the Tory Party that exists rather than fighting yesterday’s battles.
The shadow chancellor is correct to note that when Sunak compares his spending commitments favourably with those of the last decade, he is effectively attacking the legacy of Conservative governments. But there is no reason to suppose that Sunak or his boss Boris Johnson want to hide that.
Ever since becoming Tory leader, Johnson has sought to distance his brand from that of the pre-Brexit Tory Party, being happy to announce major increases in public spending and to purge top Tories whose loyalty to free market globalisation meant they stood in his way.
The language and presentation has changed too, with Sunak’s spiel on the limitations of government contrasting not the overbearing state with the dynamic market as Thatcher would have, but counterposing both to concepts he declared more important than either: “Family, community and personal responsibility.” This is a government that remains acutely aware of the prevailing suspicion of free-market capitalism and resentment of global elites.
The left and labour movement response needs to do three things.
One, which Labour has shown some ability to do, is to expose the “smoke and mirrors” quality of Sunak’s artful presentation. Announcing an end to public-sector pay freezes does not actually guarantee anybody a rise that will make up for the rising cost of goods and utilities, let alone make up for the years of real-terms cuts suffered by most public-sector employees.
In this sense it completely fails to address the crisis of working-class living standards, and the second task for our movement is to emphasise that we are in a crisis and we need radical solutions. Here, Labour is wanting.
Public opinion is in favour not of a return to normal but of an economic reset: a redistribution of wealth that favours ordinary people. Pay awards hovering around the inflation rate won’t cut it — the meaningful double-digit rises being pressed by unions in the health sector should be the benchmark for wage demands.
The same point applies with even greater force to the climate emergency, the subject of the Cop26 summit about to begin in Glasgow. Sunak’s Budget was astonishingly irresponsible in this regard. There was nothing to incentivise greater use of rail or public transport — yet there were tax cuts for domestic aviation, a freeze on fuel duty, more money for roads.
This links to the third point — that addressing the economic or environmental crisis means putting questions of ownership and control of the economy foremost.
Labour cannot accuse Sunak of cutting spending. It can point to the way public spending is splurged on Tory cronies and incompetent businesses, but while this remains couched in the language of “fiscal responsibility” it does not advance the left.
Rather we must make the case for democratic control of the economy.
That means not just higher spending, but nationalisation as the key to delivering cheap universal public transport, controlling energy prices and reducing reliance on fossil fuels. An end to outsourcing in our public services, a tax regime that cuts the rich down to size.
That would be a real alternative to a Tory Party that is still ruling in the interests of a tiny elite. And there is every reason to believe such a programme can win mass support.
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