The serious prospect of a Labour government only comes around every couple of decades, which makes it unsurprising that old lessons require to be re-learned. One is that opposition parties which are serious about shedding that status do not go around making spending promises.

It is, of course, tempting. Who would not want to commit £1.2 billion to getting rid of the two-child benefit rule as a mean-spirited piece of social engineering? Then add another 10, or why not 50, equally offensive legacy items from 14 years of Tory rule and promise to overturn the lot of them?

After this hard day’s work, the authors will have a terrific feel-good factor and the poor will have obtained not one brass farthing. The only beneficiaries will be in Tory HQ where every spending commitment is added to the charge-sheet which, just before an election, will be unveiled as astronomical, alongside the question: “How are you going to pay for it?”.

The real intellectual challenge of radical politics is not how to spend more money but to convince enough people there are ways to spend it better, guided by a competing set of values. In Aneurin Bevin’s words: “The language of priorities is the religion of socialism”. That was in 1949 amidst post-war austerity that puts recent fiscal difficulties in perspective. Yet it was the most radical, reforming government of all.

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A Labour government would never have put in place the two-child rule and would probably get rid of it in relatively short order. It just needs to get there first. If spending commitments become an obstacle to that outcome, then they are not just worthless in their own right but liabilities to be avoided. A vote for change needs to reflect faith in priorities, more than in a shopping list of promises.

Inevitably, the current debate took me down memory lane and Rachel Reeves’ hard line echoes what was equally deemed essential by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. If Labour had put a price on reducing child poverty by 900,000 in advance of an election, would it ever have been in a position to do so? Particularly in Scotland, we have surely had enough since then of radical politics being defined through headlines, rather than delivery.

Labour came to office in 1997 with a commitment to adopt Tory tax and spend plans for the first two years of the administration. This did nothing to limit the dynamic of change; on the contrary, it forced every minister to think how money could be spent better. If a priority was to be pursued, it had to be at the expense of something else, not just added to a list.

One example I recall from my own small corner of government, as Scottish Education Minister, involved FE colleges for which I came to the job with great respect. Much like now, they had been under-funded for years and were collectively asking for an extra £41 million. My starting point in divvying up the pot was they would get every penny of that amount which, much to their own surprise, is what happened.

That was at the short-term expense of the universities, for whom the same sum was a drop in a very large bucket. They grumbled a bit but in the great scheme of things it scarcely mattered. For Further Education and the people who depended on it, a real difference was made. Whether that decision was right or wrong, it is a practical example of how different outcomes are achieved through contrasting political priorities, not just by spending more money.

I was reminded of this episode by the recent announcement from the SNP-Green administration at Holyrood that it is suddenly clawing back £26 million which had been committed to Scotland’s FE colleges as it is now “not available for distribution and has been identified as a necessary saving”.

Colleges Scotland described this as “completely inexplicable … colleges are already cash strapped, making cuts to courses and winding down parts of their offer due to a lack of funding, not a lack of ambition, or demand from students or employers”. All of these sound to me as high priorities in 2023 as they were in 1997.

The Scottish Government’s actions demonstrate the danger of what happens when the mentality is to just keep spending and blame someone else when the well runs dry. Without clear priorities dictated by progressive values, when that moment comes, it is more than likely that the weakest will pay the price.

Another example where attaching numbers to policies is just plain stupid was the £28bn a year which someone plucked from thin air as Labour’s commitment to “energy transition” until Ms Reeves intervened. Why not £26bn or £30bn – would any such figure have been more or less credible if opted for?

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This is an ambition which cries out for leadership and radical reforms. Some which are most crucial to progress, like sorting out the regulatory or planning systems, are not money-dependent at all. What matters will be the sustained determination with which delivery is pursued, rather than setting up a virtuous number as a totem of belief.

Between now and a General Election, Labour will suffer plenty more denigration from opponents for failing to commit billions to this and that. The crass “Red Tory” jibe has its precedents in “Which twin is the Tory?” (Wilson) while Attlee was mocked as “a sheep in sheep’s clothing”. But history judges them by what they delivered.

In Scotland, I hope Labour is looking into every nook and cranny of the Scottish Government’s spending silos. The enigma here is that while useful budgets, like FE, are being cut, there is still an open chequebook under headings of lesser value or well-protected obscurity or straightforward political opportunism.

Once again, the challenge will not be for Labour in opposition to work out how they would spend more money; it will be to set priorities that deliver a great deal more. That shouldn’t be too difficult.
Brian Wilson is a former Labour Party politician. He was MP for Cunninghame North from 1987 until 2005 and served as a Minister of State from 1997 to 2003.