This week's article for The Daily Telegraph: 'Labour’s response to the spending review'
It’s September 1914. The French Army is in full retreat. General Ferdinand Foch has just been given command of the French Ninth Army and is reputed to have signalled Marshal Joffre, “Mon centre cède, ma droite recule, situation excellente, j'attaque” (“My center is yielding, my right is retreating, situation excellent, I am attacking”).
This quote has always seemed to me to capture perfectly Ed Balls’s approach to politics. Whatever the underlying strength of his position, he never gives an inch. Only someone with a complete disregard for the facts – and for the settled view of the British people – could say the other day, “Do I think the last Labour Government was profligate, spent too much, had too much national debt? No, I don’t think there’s any evidence for that”. Not for Ed the nuance of, “With the benefit of hindsight...” or, “On balance, we were right to keep spending during a recession”. No, despite leaving us with the highest deficit in our history, despite Liam Byrne admitting, “There is no money”, Ed Balls thinks the situation was excellent.
Yesterday’s response to the Spending Review was a classic example. Responding to a Budget or Spending Review is a tough gig – think complete surprise attack. You don’t get any notice of what the Government is announcing and often the devil is buried in the detail. And Labour’s underyling strategic position is dire. Having spent three years vociferously opposing every measure the Coalition has introduced to reduce the deficit, and arguing that the Government should be taxing less, spending more and borrowing more, they are now – in a rather muddled and inconsistent way – edging towards saying that actually, do you know what, they wouldn’t borrow a penny more after all (at least not to fund current spending). As the Chancellor said, they are currently in no man’s land.
But you wouldn’t have known that from Ed’s response. For 11 minutes, he shouted at the House of Commons. Growth is lower than the Government had predicted (true). People are feeling the squeeze (also true). Because growth is lower than predicted, it is taking longer to reduce the deficit (true again). This is all George Osborne’s fault (nonsense: whoever won in 2010 would have had to cut spending and raise taxes to clear up the mess Labour left behind, squeezing household income in the process; and most western economies have seen lower than predicted growth – some to a much greater extent than we have – so to blame it all on George Osborne’s policies is ridiculous).
“It doesn’t have to be this way”, he proclaimed. Well actually Ed, yes it does if – as your leader is saying – you are not going to borrow a penny more to fund current spending in 2015/16 (unless you’re planning to put up taxes?). It has to be exactly this way.
But despite shouting at us for 11 minutes, Ed Balls didn’t tell us a word about what Labour would do in 2015/16 if it wins the next election. He didn’t support Ed Miliband’s position that Labour wouldn’t borrow any more to fund current spending. He didn’t say they would borrow more so that they could spend more. He didn’t even confirm that they would spend more on infrastructure than the Coalition is planning and, if so, by how much and how they would fund it. And he didn’t give any opinion on the further welfare reforms that the Chancellor announced – if, for example, Labour agreed with the welfare cap that the Government is proposing or if, as he has previously implied, Labour thinks that the state pension should be included in the cap (which would mean that a Labour government could deliver its promises on welfare by cutting the income of pensioners who have worked hard all their lives).
The plans that the Chancellor set out yesterday are tough. They will mean a further year of below inflation pay increases for my constituents who are public servants for example. I am particularly worried about the impact on local government, which is being asked to find greater savings than central government. But the Chancellor is right to say that this country has to start living within its means. And on this central question in British politics, Labour currently has nothing to say.
In the first year or two of the parliament, they could get away with opposing every cut without saying what they would do. But in the run-up to the Election, they will have to say what they would do if they win. It’s make your mind up time, Ed. Do you reluctantly accept, as I do, that these cuts are necessary or would you spend more and if so how would you pay for it – higher taxes or more borrowing? Your position is collapsing. Your situation is far from excellent. It’s time you answered the question.
General Foch’s audacity was rewarded with victory at the First Battle of the Marne. But with the economy moving from rescue to recovery, Ed Balls is dragging Labour to defeat in 2015.
This article was first published on The Telegraph website on 27 June 2013