Balls shows he's no "deficit denier" at the TUC

The shadow chancellor was heckled as he warned that Labour would cut too.

Those who denounce Ed Balls as Labour's "deficit-denier-in-chief" should have watched his speech to the TUC conference this morning. While the shadow chancellor made a typically persuasive case for short-term stimulus, he went on to use some of the toughest language we've heard from him on the need for spending cuts and other austerity measures to reduce the deficit in the long-term. To cries of "rubbish!" from trade union delegates (a rebuke that won't have troubled Balls in the slightest), he said:

We must be honest with the British people that under Labour, there would have been cuts, and that – on spending, pay and pensions – there will be disappointments and difficult decisions from which we will not flinch.

Balls went on to reaffirm the position he outlined in January - that Labour, based on current trends, will have to keep "all these cuts". He could not "make any commitments now that the next Labour government will be able to reverse particular tax rises or spending cuts." Unlike Nick Clegg, he quipped, "we will not make promises we cannot keep".

When challenged in the Q&A session on Labour's failure to oppose George Osborne's public sector pay freeze (and the 1% cap from 2013), Balls replied that "you can't say pay before jobs, we've got to say jobs before pay"  ("shame on you!", one delegate shouted). Asked if the party would take the railways back into public ownership (a demand that prompted the loudest cheers of the session), Balls replied that the policy would cost billions and so the answer was 'no'.  "I’m not sure when we come into government in 2015 that expenditure on that scale is going to be a priority," he said.

Balls's speech was a reminder of why the next election will, in some respects, be more difficult for Labour than the Tories. Osborne likes to say that the coalition is cleaning up "Labour's mess" but, if elected in 2015, Labour will need to clean up his. When the Chancellor delivered his "emergency Budget" in June 2010, the newly-established Office for Budget Responsibility forecast a deficit of £37bn (2.1% of GDP) for 2014-15. But the failure of Osborne's plan to deliver growth (indeed, its success in delivering recession) means that, according to the latest independent forecasts, the next government will inherit a deficit of £96.1bn (5.8%), a figure that is only likely to rise as growth remains anaemic or non-existent.

Given these fiscal constraints, the biggest choice facing Balls and Ed Miliband is whether to pledge to stick to the Tories' spending plans for the first few years, as Labour did in 1997, or to offer a distinct alternative.

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls told the TUC, "we will not make promises we cannot keep". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Meet the MPs who still think they have a chance of defeating Brexit

A crossparty group of MPs believe they have a right to vote Brexit down in the House of Commons. 

The decision on 23 June was final. With the ballots cast, the nation’s voters started the conveyor belt that would take the United Kingdom in only one direction - Brexit. It was independence day, or Brexitpocalypse, depending on your point of view.

But some MPs think differently. A growing handful of of crossparty MPs who backed Remain are now saying they will vote against Brexit if offered the chance. 

With Article 50 yet to be triggered, they still have an opportunity to influence what happens next. But the decision also raises questions about democracy. What is an MP’s role at this point of national crisis? To respect the will of the majority? Or to fight for their individual constituents?

David Lammy, the Labour MP for Tottenham (pictured), has led the charge for a second vote on Brexit.

He points out the referendum was “advisory, non-binding”, and argues it should be up to Parliament to make the final decision

In a series of tweets, he said:  “Our Parliament is sovereign and must approve any Brexit.

“My position is clear. I will never vote for Brexit or to invoke Article 50. On behalf of my constituents and the young people of this country I will not do it. Three quarters of my constituents voted to Remain, and I will continue to stand up for them.”

Lammy isn’t the only one to invoke the will of his constituents. Another Labour MP, Catherine West, represents Hornsey and Wood Green. In Haringey, the overlapping local authority, three quarters of voters chose to Remain. 

West tweeted: “I stand with them on this issue and I will vote against Brexit in Parliament.”

Daniel Zeichner, the Labour MP for the Europhile island of Cambridge, has also pledged to vote Remain. Geraint Davies, a Welsh Labour MP and Jonathan Edwards, from Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru, have submitted a formal notice to Parliament demanding a second referendum "on the terms of leaving the EU". 

Perhaps it is not surprising English and Welsh MPs are taking such a stubborn view. Short of following Scotland’s example and demanding London’s independence, they have few other options.

But the MPs’ resistance also brings up a thorny political question. A majoritarian vote is only one part of democracy after all. Constituency MPs and minority protections are also part of the mix. 

There may also be an argument that responsible MPs should act in voters’ best interests - even if that is against the wishes of the voters themselves. 

Speaking in the House of Commons, Tory grandee Ken Clarke noted MPs were yet to actually hear the details of what Brexit Britain would look like. 

He asked the Prime Minister:

“Does my right hon. Friend agree that we still have a parliamentary democracy and it would be the duty of each Member of Parliament to judge each measure in the light of what each man and woman regards as the national interest, and not to take broad guidance from a plebiscite which has produced a small majority on a broad question after a bad-tempered and ill-informed debate?”

It is not a straightforward democratic case. But with two parties divided, a 300-year-old union in jeopardy and the peace process in Northern Ireland under pressure, MPs might be tempted to put the patriot’s argument first.