OPINION - Rachel Reeves' Hammersmith Bridge vow shows Labour's conundrum

 (Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire)
(Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire)

Stop me if you've heard this one before. The shadow chancellor appeared on the radio this morning and, when asked about a crumbling corner of the public realm, agreed it was bad and said a Labour government would fix it. Pressed on whether she was actually committing any funding towards this, Rachel Reeves declined:

“I’m not going to create pots of money without being able to say where the money is going to come from... I haven’t got a magic money tree." Get ready for, oh, another six month of this.

Now, Reeves was referring to Hammersmith Bridge, which for £250m might be able to transport cars across the Thames in five years' time. But she could equally have been responding to a question about the NHS, schools or prisons. The answer would have been variations on a theme.

It's not that Labour lacks policies. It's just that there is a fundamental tension between its central critique of the Conservatives (Liz Truss plus they have overseen a collapse in the public realm) and the core Tory attack (that Labour governments cannot be trusted to run the economy). Hence the relentless focus on economic security. One more time for those at the back: change without risk.

The six pledges that Keir Starmer set out yesterday are a good example of this but let's focus on the NHS. Labour has promised an additional 40,000 appointments per week, which sounds like an awful lot. But there were 124.5 million outpatient appointments in 2022-23, itself representing an increase of 1.7 per cent on the year before. Which, in real numbers, amounts to a rise of... 40,000 appointments. As for how these will be funded, Labour will be "cracking down on tax avoidance and non-doms", i.e. someone else.

I don't really blame Starmer or Reeves for any of this. It's how our politics works nowadays, supercharged by George Osborne's six years in the Treasury and the establishment of the Office for Budget Responsibility (a largely good thing that has produced some weird incentives vis-à-vis fiscal headroom). Together, it makes really clear that the government sets the baseline which in turn means that any Labour divergence must be 'paid for'.

Incidentally, Tony Blair successfully turned the tables on this equation back in the naughties, when the debate was centred on 'Labour investment versus Tory cuts'. But that's one of the many benefits of being in government rather than opposition. If you're half decent, you get to define the terms of the debate, at least for a while. See Flight, Howard, 2005 for a good example of this.

Like any sentient being. I hope this election comes in the autumn so it doesn't interrupt my Christmas holidays. But also because it's going to be months of tedious political theatre over small pots of money which bear little resemblance to the actual (and fairly dire) fiscal position of the country.

This article appears in our award-winning newsletter, West End Final – delivered 4pm daily – bringing you the very best of the paper, from culture and comment to features and sport. Sign up here.