Autumn Budget 2021: How Labour can take on this high-spending, big-state Tory government – Ayesha Hazarika

Some leaders are known as lucky generals. Sir Keir Starmer is not one of them.

Such terrible timing to have tested positive for Covid minutes before heading into the Commons’ chamber for PMQs and then the most significant fiscal event of the year since I tried out the personal shopping service at John Lewis.

(That too involved a budget which was high-spend with great deal of optimism.)

In some ways, missing it was a mercy. It’s a thankless task, responding to the budget as Labour leader. You spend hours if not days crafting a speech in which you don’t have many answers and when you rise to your feet, all the senior political journalists walk out en masse to get the briefing from the Treasury team.

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Rarely does one feel less powerful and relevant in politics. It’s a sharp reminder of the frustration and impotence of being in opposition and why winning elections matters.

Tory budgets are particularly difficult for Labour because there is an undeniable built-in bias from the media and the public which assumes greater economic competence with Conservative Chancellors – particularly when they are as slick as Rishi Sunak, whose political brand domination continues uncontested.

He can do suited and booted. He can rock a slider. He can pretend to read a document while stroking a dog. Is there any look this guy can’t pull off?

I’m waiting for the Zoolander calendar complete with our Chancellor recreating that iconic Athena poster where he cradles a new-born. There’s no denying his calm, confidence, ability and blue-steel ambition.

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Labour's Shadow Chancellor, Rachel Reeves, responds to Rishi Sunak's Autumn Budget statement (Picture: Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament/AFP via Getty Images)

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Old-school Tories are grumpy about his spending, and Labour is grappling with how to frame this reluctant big-state Chancellor who is getting just the right amount of grief from his own side about how profligate he’s being.

Labour is right to remind people that Conservative governments have presided over a low-growth economy made worse by austerity, which means public services and the state – from health to courts to schools – are now desperate for emergency cash.

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The economy is springing back after the pandemic which has given Sunak more headroom to spend but that doesn’t fix the deeper structural problems which includes skills, training, investment and regional imbalances.

Labour needs to make the case for investing in people, technology, industry and infrastructure, which includes childcare, extended school hours and social care. Labour should also champion the concept of the industrial strategy on a sector by sector and regional basis, especially in a post-Brexit world with supply chain issues, red tape, labour shortages and other practical issues.

Businesses are crying out for this kind of engagement. A senior business leader told me last week that they have never needed a strong opposition who gets them more than they do right now.

This is a huge opportunity for Labour. Less a prawn-cocktail offensive in the City, more a packet of Skips and a pint with manufacturers, retailers and small-to-medium-sized businesses.

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Labour should be on the side of business and consumers, especially with the looming cost-of-living crisis. As the penny drops that any superficial wage increases will be gobbled up by rising prices, Labour needs to be ready.

Rising inflation which could lead to higher interest rates would be disastrous for individual households and public finances. But what’s most important for Labour is to work hard behind the scenes with business, stay visible on the economy, but to stay calm and return to chanting the old lines about the same old Tories, because this is a different beast.

There was there was one silver lining in Starmer’s bad luck. His absence allowed Rachel Reeves, Bridget Philipson, Pat McFadden and Ed Miliband to step up and they all did a pretty impressive job.

It will take more than one man to take on the Tories on the economy and Labour has shown that it has some strong performers on the front bench. Maybe we should see more of them.

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