Red Ed? Labour swings right on education and welfare

Labour's new front benchers came out to bat with a resolutely conservative message yesterday, in a clear sign Labour wants to counter the impression that it is shifting to the left.

New shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves said Labour would be "tougher" on welfare than the Tories, while new shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt came out in support of free schools.

"We have some really great policies that show we are tough and will not allow people to linger on benefits, but also that we are fair," Reeves said.

The 34-year-old said Labour would force claimants to take possible jobs or else risk losing the payments.

"Nobody should be under any illusions that they are going to be able to live a life on benefits under a Labour government," she said.

"If you can work you should be working, and under our compulsory jobs guarantee if you refuse that job you forgo your benefits, and that is really important."

The comments prompted a letter from her government opposite number, Iain Duncan Smith.

"I was hoping you might explain exactly which of the many reforms you have personally voted against, you will now be in favour of?" he wrote.

"Will you reverse the benefit uprating limit? The housing benefit cap? The benefit cap?"

Hunt was also on the receiving end of a letter from Michael Gove, education secretary, who mischievously raised his previous support for coalition policies on the English baccalaureate.

But Hunt, who has not yet replied to the letter, was busy distancing himself from a comment that free schools were a "vanity project for yummy mummies".

Interviewed yesterday, he said: "I regret those comments because any parents, be they yummy mummies or faddy daddies, involved in the education of their children is great."

Hunt said Labour would support existing free schools but that the party would only back the opening of new ones in areas where there are not enough school places.

The party will also insist that the institutions can only employ qualified teachers.

"If you want to [set up a free school] when we are in government, we will be on your side," he said.

"There has been this perception that we would not be, and I want people to be clear that we are."

Neither announcement reflects a new policy change by the Labour party. Hunt has left the existing free schools policy unchanged, even though he is clearing up the position held by his predecessor.

A Conservative party spokesman said: "Nothing has changed. Labour are still opposed to parental choice and higher standards.

"Despite today's warm words, Labour won't open new schools where existing schools are failing, won't guarantee to keep existing free schools open and won't support action to improve our exams and curriculum."

Reeves was merely highlighting an existing Labour policy, although she chose to focus on the penalty aspect of it, whereas Ed Miliband usually focuses on the promise to give people jobs.

The decision to send out the two new recruits with a decidedly right-wing message suggests the Labour party is wary of being portrayed as too left-wing since Miliband's conference speech, which called for an energy price freeze and seizures where developers are not using land.