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'Tougher Than Tories' Rachel Reeves Leaves Labour Front Bench, But Won't Be Missed

15/09/2015 10:34 BST | Updated 14/09/2016 10:12 BST

Following Jeremy Corbyn's landslide election as new Labour leader his new shadow cabinet is taking shape, and this has brought the expected changes in both direction and personnel.

Many are due to the party's right-wingers ruling themselves out of contention rather than a Corbynite night of the long knives, and one of those who has taken their bat and ball home is shadow Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) spokesperson Rachel Reeves.

It is fair to say that Reeves was not popular among unemployed people, apparently misunderstanding the meaning of the word 'opposition' and racing Iain Duncan Smith towards an ever-more-draconian position on social security, caring little for the victims created on the way.

Led by her, Labour's agonising on social security in the last parliament was an object lesson in how not to run a party.

Years of an invisible policy review appeared to be centred on obsessive poll watching and focus group consulting, which showed the party that UK voters were typically anti-benefits, so Labour decided they should be anti-benefits. No attempt to change minds on the basis of fairness, no providing of real information to act as a balance to the misleading narratives put forward by most of the media.

Up stepped Reeves in 2013 to announce that Labour would be "tougher than the Tories on benefits", a stance which looks even more incredible now than it did then.

The recent welfare bill shows how draconian the Conservatives have become on the issue, how unprincipled, and demonstrates why Reeves was so mistaken to try to race them to the bottom. Their previous benefit cap was sold as morally right on the basis that £26,000 was the national average salary:

David Cameron said this was "a basic issue of fairness", that "I don't think a family should be able to get more in benefits than someone going out to work, working every day and trying to do the right thing for them and their family."

This benchmarking against salaries was a nonsense then - most families that earned £26,000 would also receive benefits, but these weren't included in the calculation; there still aren't enough jobs for everyone - but this "basic issue of fairness" was abandoned immediately after the election when a £20,000 cap was introduced through the Welfare Bill.

This is what Reeves wanted to be 'tougher' than.

We are living through times when the Conservatives have finally been forced to publish figures that show thousands of benefit claimants have had their last weeks on earth ruined by being hounded by the DWP just to save a few pounds.

This is what Reeves wanted to be 'tougher' than.

In April, when there was a brief flurry of publicity because the landmark of a million people using foodbanks was passed for the first time, primarily as a result of welfare delays and sanctions, so 'tough' Reeves tried to soften her message:

"David Cameron's failure to tackle low pay, the bedroom tax and delays in benefit payments have led to more than a million people depending on emergency food aid."

She didn't explain how being even tougher on the main cause of foodbank use was going to end this dependence.

Reeves replaced Liam Byrne as work and pensions spokesperson with the explicit aim of moving Labour right on the issue, and boy did she succeed.

She flirted with the idea of removing benefits from the under-25s, a bizarre and infantilising idea when dealing with the needs of adults. Even the Tories' current proposal - itself a travesty based on some bizarre idea that young people can automatically get care from their parents - only suggests 21 as a minimum.

Reeves only legitimised Conservative policies by competing with them, when every instinct should have told her they would only bring pain and misery to the UK's poorest, the very people her party is supposed to protect.

Jeremy Corbyn has been clear that he will end this attack on the welfare state by the party that invented it, and has today appointed Owen Smith as his new spokesperson for the DWP.

Smith, the MP for Pontypridd, has moved from his previous shadow cabinet position at the Welsh department, and is likely to prove a more willing and able defender of claimants.

His voting records show he has generally opposed reductions in benefits, including the Education Maintenance Allowance, bedroom tax, child benefit, and the cap in cost-of-living increases, and voted against the introduction of Universal Credit, the government's welfare white elephant.

Perhaps most indicative of his backbone was that he was one of the few Labour MPs not to toe the party line and abstain from the recent Welfare Bill, voting against it as a Harriet Harman-led party tied itself in knots wondering what to do on this crucial issue.

The appointment confirms the new direction Labour will take, providing true opposition to the morally lacking policies of the government even where this is unpopular.

It may even prove to be a vote winner; a Labour party pretending to be more right wing than it is risks being called inauthentic, and is unlikely to take too many votes from Conservatives offering the real deal.

But a Labour party explaining the real reasons why so many people in Britain are poor are getting poorer, and offers real solutions; that might be a political force with a bright future.