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.