Nobody can deny that Rachel Reeves knows her brief. With a background in financial services she is comfortable in the world of statistics that underpins the current discourse around welfare. This week, however, I began to fully appreciate how radical her vision for the welfare state is.
When Stephen Bush cut to the chase and asked Reeves how she would reduce the welfare bill in a progressive way, he hit the nail on the head. We have known for quite some time that Labour has a number of proactive, and fully costed, ideas for how to reduce the welfare bill and get more people back into work. But Reeves not only elaborated the how, she explored how this could be achieved using the principles and values of the Labour party.
Reeves is quite right when she asserted that there is nothing progressive about youth unemployment, low pay or zero-hours contracts. It is only through measures such as strengthening the minimum wage, increasing access to affordable childcare and improving the skills of our workers that we can even dream of lowering the welfare bill while improving peoples lives.
By focusing her answers on the causes of the problem, Reeves demonstrated an understanding and policy framework that transcends departmental barriers. It is this joined-up thinking that makes her ideas so radical and progressive. Despite policy areas such as health, childcare and local government being outside of her remit, Reeves was keen to point out that cross-departmental collaboration is the key to lowering the welfare bill – these areas can no longer work in isolation.
Those who have been lobbying the shadow cabinet for uncosted spending pledges or an immediate reversal of policies such as the increase in tuition fees, may not find solace in Reeves’ vision. Her message is clear: we can be radical, but we must be realistic about what we can achieve. The money simply is not there. Instead, Reeves directs any discontent towards all that we achieved in 1997 when we were faced with similar spending constraints.
Policy aside, perhaps the most important theme that emerged throughout the course of the conversation was the tone of the debate around welfare. For the past five years, the government has demonised those who rely on the welfare state. Rather than taking this line, Reeves sought to create a positive image for social security that benefits all of society, as well as reducing the welfare bill. Pitting one group against another – the shirkers vs workers mentality – will not help us to create a fairer society.
Before the event some may have questioned whether Reeves is passionate about the changes that need to be made to our welfare system to make it work for all. But Reeves showed us that not only does she have an ironclad understanding of her brief, she possesses a real drive to improve the lives of the many, not just the few.
Kerrie Gilbert is a member of Progress. She tweets @KerrieAGilbert
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