Chris Leslie MP: As Osborne sets a Budget for his party, Labour must earn the trust of the country
We already know that George Osborne’s Budget next week will revolve around his own political predicament. Caught in a tussle for pole position with Boris ahead of a leadership race, the Chancellor will avoid upsetting Tory members and strain every sinew to prove he is the true keeper of the Tory flame. In the Spending Review before Christmas the biggest challenge was how to placate rebel MPs worried that tax credits were being cut too deeply. Only a few months on, and with George at odds with Conservative Association activists on the EU referendum, his priority now will be to outflank his rival. That’s why he’s ditched the plan for a flat rate pension tax relief and why he’s even setting the scene for concessions to top rate taxpayers as an ‘incentive’ for six-figure earners.
In autumn the Chancellor managed to escape planned cuts with a £27 bn statistical windfall, but this now looks unlikely to materialise, as wage growth and productivity have disappointed. The scene is set for a Budget where the Chancellor top slices more from public services which are needed most acutely in non-Tory urban areas - local government grant, policing, transport and possibly from the universal credit too, while dangling the prospect of tax cuts to whet the appetite of his membership in Tory heartlands.
Labour must shine a spotlight on this Chancellor who is governing for his own ends not the country’s needs. But we, of course, have our own challenges to face. We are a year on from a general election in which the public chose the Conservatives by a margin of two million votes, nearly six years since we lost power in 2010. Yet the polls show we are no further forward regaining the general public’s trust on the economy. Of course we should champion investment, but we must also talk about how money is spent - not just how much.
The electorate have told us twice that they think we do not care enough about the deficit, so to simply call for more spending and borrowing with no mention of public service reform or any recognition of budget priorities risks doing the Tories’ job for them. Yes, there is a case for targeted borrowing specifically to fund long-term capital infrastructure investment, but to gain permission for this case to be heard by the public, we must also argue for fair savings, efficiency and reform. In short, better spending not just more spending.
And spending better has to be done by Labour because of our belief in pooling resources to deliver higher grade public services. A Conservative agenda driven by a dogmatic desire to roll back the State will fail.
It is too easy to fall into the habit of criticising cuts without offering alternatives. Briefings about pledging to ‘reverse every cut’ are as unhelpful as they are unworkable – although the Shadow Chancellor has since been clear that he will make no such commitment. There are changes that can be made. Regulatory costs ought to be more fairly borne by those whose behaviour needs regulating – the polluter should pay. Over £20 billion of overdue debts are owed in fines and unpaid taxes which should be collected. Do we need quite so many Whitehall departments? Can we save NHS costs by preventing ill health? Should foreign litigants be charged more for using our courts? Why are fraud and error rates in social security and housing benefit not falling?
A sustainable NHS harmonised with decent social care, a decent transport network, and councils able to deliver quality local services - all essential goals. But to achieve these ends we have to prove to the public they are realistic and achievable.
In the next week Labour must expose the ideological Tory cuts to public services that are damaging our country. But opposition alone will not change things. The public deserve answers, not wish-lists. As George Osborne’s focus narrows, we must show the country we can offer a credible alternative.
Chris Leslie was Shadow Chancellor from May to September 2015 and is the Chair of the PLP Treasury Committee. He is the Labour MP for Nottingham East.