Balls pulls it off

He had the spirit and confidence of a man who knows he is winning the argument.

Ed Balls's speech to Labour conference was perhaps the most confident and memorable he has ever given. His delivery was faltering at times but his well-honed message was as clear as ever: George Osborne's plan is hurting but it's not working. With growth down and unemployment up, Labour's Keynesian rottweiler had plenty to get his teeth into.

As an alternative, Balls offered his own five-point plan for growth, the most eye-catching part of which was a one-year National Insurance holiday for all firms that take on extra workers. In the most effective line of his speech, he declared: "Call it Plan A plus, call it Plan B, call it Plan C, I don't care what they call it. Britain just needs a plan that works".

The section on Labour's "new fiscal rules" was less detailed than some expected but Balls set out his intention to offer "fiscal responsibility in the national interest", a message we haven't heard from his party for some time. The next Labour government will, he promised, "get our country's current budget back to balance" and set "national debt on a downward path." The timeline for doing so, however, remains unspecified (rightly, Balls refuses to set arbitrary targets).

Sounding a note of contrition, he also offered a fulsome list of Labour's "mistakes", namely the 75p pension rise, the abolition of the 10p tax rate, the failure to get "all employers to train", and the weak controls on migration from eastern Europe. But he rightly refused to accept that Labour was "profligate" in office, reminding the hall that "we went into the crisis with lower national debt than we inherited in 1997 and lower than America, France, Germany and Japan." (As a percentage of GDP, debt fell from from 42.5 per cent of GDP in 1997 to 36.5 per cent in 2007.)

Not all of what Balls said went down well with the party faithful. There was silence as he insisted that Labour could not promise to reverse particular Tory spending cuts or tax rises, and as he warned that pensions strikes this autumn would play into George Osborne's hands. Significantly, he added that under Labour "contributions and the retirement age would be rising too." His pledge to use any windfall from the bank sell-off to reduce the deficit, not to cut taxes, won applause, although some on the left would prefer a radical commitment to mutualise the banks and turn them into engines of growth.

But he finished strongly with a rhetorical assault on Osborne's boast that Britain is a "safe haven". It might be a safe haven for David Cameron and George Osborne and Boris Johnson and their friends, he said, but it is not a safe haven "for the 16,000 companies that have gone out of business in the last year". Unlike Vince Cable (who spoke of "grey skies" in his conference speech), he ended on a positive note, promising to show that "there can be a better future". And rightly so. History shows that progressive parties don't win elections unless they offer a hopeful vision of the future.

Balls had the energy and spirit of a man who knows that he is winning the argument. With even the IMF now warning that Osborne may have to slow the pace of the cuts if growth continues to disappoint, the consensus is slowly turning against austerity. As the economic data continues to worsen, Balls will win further converts to his approach.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The government needs more on airports than just Chris Grayling's hunch

This disastrous plan to expand Heathrow will fail, vows Tom Brake. 

I ought to stop being surprised by Theresa May’s decision making. After all, in her short time as Prime Minister she has made a series of terrible decisions. First, we had Chief Buffoon, Boris Johnson appointed as Foreign Secretary to represent the United Kingdom around the world. Then May, announced full steam ahead with the most extreme version of Brexit, causing mass economic uncertainty before we’ve even begun negotiations with the EU. And now we have the announcement that expansion of Heathrow Airport, in the form of a third runway, will go ahead: a colossally expensive, environmentally disastrous, and ill-advised decision.

In the House of Commons on Tuesday, I asked Transport Secretary Chris Grayling why the government is “disregarding widespread hostility and bulldozing through a third runway, which will inflict crippling noise, significant climate change effects, health-damaging air pollution and catastrophic congestion on a million Londoners.” His response was nothing more than “because we don’t believe it’s going to do those things.”

I find this astonishing. It appears that the government is proceeding with a multi-billion pound project with Grayling’s beliefs as evidence. Why does the government believe that a country of our size should focus on one major airport in an already overcrowded South East? Germany has multiple major airports, Spain three, the French, Italians, and Japanese have at least two. And I find it astonishing that the government is paying such little heed to our legal and moral environmental obligations.

One of my first acts as an MP nineteen years ago was to set out the Liberal Democrat opposition to the expansion of Heathrow or any airport in southeast England. The United Kingdom has a huge imbalance between the London and the South East, and the rest of the country. This imbalance is a serious issue which our government must get to work remedying. Unfortunately, the expansion of Heathrow does just the opposite - it further concentrates government spending and private investment on this overcrowded corner of the country.

Transport for London estimates that to make the necessary upgrades to transport links around Heathrow will be £10-£20 billion pounds. Heathrow airport is reportedly willing to pay only £1billion of those costs. Without upgrades to the Tube and rail links, the impact on London’s already clogged roads will be substantial. Any diversion of investment from improving TfL’s wider network to lines serving Heathrow would be catastrophic for the capital. And it will not be welcomed by Londoners who already face a daily ordeal of crowded tubes and traffic-delayed buses. In the unlikely event that the government agrees to fund this shortfall, this would be salt in the wound for the South-West, the North, and other parts of the country already deprived of funding for improved rail and road links.

Increased congestion in the capital will not only raise the collective blood pressure of Londoners, but will have severe detrimental effects on our already dire levels of air pollution. During each of the last ten years, air pollution levels have been breached at multiple sites around Heathrow. While a large proportion of this air pollution is caused by surface transport serving Heathrow, a third more planes arriving and departing adds yet more particulates to the air. Even without expansion, it is imperative that we work out how to clean this toxic air. Barrelling ahead without doing so is irresponsible, doing nothing but harm our planet and shorten the lives of those living in west London.

We need an innovative, forward-looking strategy. We need to make transferring to a train to Cardiff after a flight from Dubai as straightforward and simple as transferring to another flight is now. We need to invest in better rail links so travelling by train to the centre of Glasgow or Edinburgh is quicker than flying. Expanding Heathrow means missing our climate change targets is a certainty; it makes life a misery for those who live around the airport and it diverts precious Government spending from other more worthy projects.

The Prime Minister would be wise to heed her own advice to the 2008 government and “recognise widespread hostility to Heathrow expansion.” The decision to build a third runway at Heathrow is the wrong one and if she refuses to U-turn she will soon discover the true extent of the opposition to these plans.

Tom Brake is the Liberal Democrat MP for Carshalton & Wallington.