A new economic dawn

Reeves charts course for a new national inclusive growth strategy

27 March 2024

By Ben Franklin

5 minute read

While the post-match media frenzy focused on chancellor in waiting Rachel Reeves’ riffing off Thatcher, it’s worthwhile taking a closer look at the substance of her speech. In the face of an incredibly challenging fiscal and geopolitical environment, Reeves’ Mais lecture marks a substantial departure from the status quo in UK economic policy.

After a decade of economic stagnation, it would be easy to strive for any drivers of growth – however short term and desperate they may be. It would be tempting to double down on key engines of growth from the past – London, finance, and professional services. Or go for short term tax cuts to bring forward greater household consumption and business investment. But central to the Reeves’ doctrine is to ensure growth is broad-based and resilient. To ensure security which is sustainable for everyone.

How is this different from levelling up, regional rebalancing or other efforts to rejig our economy and ensure broader based growth in the past?

Whereas levelling up was effectively a slogan which policymakers desperately tried to put some meat on the bones of, Reeves’ approach is strategic from the off. She wants all aspects of economic policy and many aspects of social policy to pull towards her vision of inclusive growth. That means a more active industrial strategy that doesn’t just pick winners in already prosperous areas but seeks to spread investment and wealth across the country – harnessing strengths of different people and places. It means stronger workers' rights to ensure decent work for those in low paid sectors. It means planning reform and investment in national infrastructure to unlock greater economic potential across the regions. It means a focus on addressing gender inequality which is a significant and continual impediment to growth. It also means a new approach to trade policy – protecting and investing in key strategic industries such as energy where some degree of self-sufficiency will be important in an uncertain world.

Crucially, and contrary to worries of a U turn, it is clear that Reeves sees investment in green industries and jobs as a fundamental part of the plan. Despite rowing back on a precise investment figure (remember the £28bn), Reeves is adamant in her desire to emulate the success of Bidenomics in nurturing home grown industry that can support a just transition. Putting an exact figure on government investment in green industry given the uncertain economic and fiscal environment facing an incoming Labour government is simply hostage to fortune.

Reeves was also keen to point out how her philosophy is different to New Labour whose focus could perhaps unfairly be described as grow first and worry about redistribution later. There were certainly some interesting innovations in New Labour’s approach to spatial inequality – including national devolution, advances in regional economic policy including Regional Development Agencies and investment in neighbourhood level prevention with Sure Start. There was also a whole-of-government strategy for dealing with health inequalities and targeted place-based approaches for spending and reform. While New Labour could often be criticised for being overly target driven, and top down, these were all qualified successes. But Reeves’ approach promises to go further than a multitude of useful but somewhat disparate interventions - making inclusive growth and universal security the framing for all national economic policy.

An incoming Labour government will be hit by a host of immediate crises – from local government funding to Ukraine to our buckling NHS. They will need to find their way through shoring up failing public services at home and a dangerous geopolitical climate aboard without losing sight of the framework Reeves has started to sketch out. And crucially it will all cost money. We all know this to be true and one of the key features of Bidenomics is the scale of US investment. Whisper it quietly, but Reeves’ fiscal rules which emulate Jeremy Hunt’s are actually relatively loose and flexible by UK historic standards and will provide scope for borrowing to invest in the human and physical capital which is so crucial for improving the productive capacity across the whole of the UK and to set us on a course for net zero. And we all know taxes will rise – they will do so under the current government irrespective of the Spring Budget rhetoric. An incoming government must of course spend and invest very wisely – we are no longer living in an era of zero lower bound interest rates, but in marking such a strong departure from the economic status quo, it is clear the future is not all doom and gloom – the chancellor in waiting has a plan and it’s on all of us to flesh out how it can be delivered.