Balls has got the Tories on the run

The energetic shadow chancellor is challenging the coalition's missteps at every turn.

The battle over the appropriateness of the coalition's economic policy has truly commenced and the amateurs are no longer dominating. A professional economist has arrived on the scene in the form of the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, whose energetic interventions, as I suspected they would, are beginning to put coalition ministers on the back foot. Ed is highly effective and is challenging the coalition's missteps at every turn. His alternative strategy is to cut the deficit more slowly and not to compromise growth.

The shadow chancellor's Budget broadcast seemed particularly on point and contained a big apology. Balls agreed that regulation should have been tougher but: "Every government in the world got that wrong -- and I'd like to say sorry for the part that I and the last Labour government played in that." And he rightly pointed out that the Tories are not innocent, as they continually argued for even lighter regulation.

Ed had several sound bites that will surely have some resonance with the general public. "Our economy, which was working, has now ground to a halt." "By cutting too far and too fast, George Osborne isn't solving the problem -- he is in danger of making it worse." "But George Osborne is going too far and too fast and we're paying the price in lost jobs and slower growth." "So I fear that George Osborne's plan won't just hurt, it won't work." This counterattack seems to be working: at PMQs last week, an obviously rattled David Cameron snapped angrily that Balls is "the most annoying person in modern politics". Ed is obviously getting to the Prime Minister. Good. That means our shadow chancellor is doing his job.

Of particular interest are the claims made by Chancellor Osborne that the OECD is a big fan of his policies. He even referred to a letter he received from the right-wing boss of the OECD, Angel Gurria, in which he said that "while this budget contains hard measures, we are convinced that they are unavoidable in the short term to pave the way for a stronger recovery. By sticking to the fiscal consolidation plan set out last year, the United Kingdom will continue along the road towards stability."

Interestingly, today, in its interim assessment of the G7 economies, the OECD made clear that it thinks that the UK economy will grow more slowly than any other G7 economy except Japan, which has just been hit by tempest and flood. The OECD also revised their forecast for Q2 2011 from 1.3 per cemt to 1 per cent on an annualised basis. At the same time, it upgraded its forecasts for many G7 economies, predicting second-quarter growth in the US, France and Germany of 3.4 per cent, 2.8 per cent and 2.3 per cent, respectively. If the policies are so great, how come the OECD lowered their forecast for growth in the UK but raised it in all the other OECD countries that are not implementing austerity? I suspect Ed may well be picking up on this rather glaring contradiction.

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.