Balls tries to show that you can trust Labour with your money

The shadow chancellor's pledge to justify "every penny" makes political and economic sense.

"Are you ready to trust Labour with your money again?", asked Nick Clegg in his conference speech. The announcement by Ed Balls that Labour, if elected, would hold a "zero-based spending review" is an admission that he still needs to convince voters that they can answer "yes". The record £159bn deficit may have been a consequence, rather than a cause, of the economic crisis but Balls rightly recognises that Labour didn't always spend wisely in office.

A zero-based review (an idea proposed last December by In The Black Labour) differs from others in that it requires every item of spending to be approved, rather than merely changes to a pre-determined baseline. In other words, nothing is off the table. As Balls says in his interview with the Guardian:

The public want to know that we are going to be ruthless and disciplined in how we go about public spending. For a Labour government in 2015, it is quite right, and the public I think would expect this, to have a proper zero-based spending review where we say we have to justify every penny and make sure we are spending in the right way.

He goes on to add that the review will be subject to three qualifications. First, that Labour will commit to protecting spending in certain areas, such as international development and possibly health, based on its priorities of fairness and growth; second, that it will examine whether "cuts now would lead to higher costs in the future" (for instance, by cutting public health and other preventative budgets); and third, that Labour will seek to achieve a cross-party consensus before the election in specific areas, such as social care and children in care, which may then be excluded from the zero budgeting process. Elsewhere, in an interview with the Mirror, Balls states that Labour will use private firms to run public services if it believes they will offer the taxpayer better value for money. The New Labour mantra of "whatever works" lives on. And rightly so. There is no reasonable objection to any of the above.

But the interview is also notable for what Balls doesn't say. With George Osborne due to announce spending plans for 2015-16 (the first post-election year) in next year's Spending Review, recent speculation has suggested that Balls, in an echo of Labour's 1997 strategy, could pledge to match them. In an interview with the Spectator, however, Harriet Harman poured cold water on this proposal, declaring that there was no chance of Labour "signing up to doing the very thing we think is hurting the economy".

Labour aides have since suggested that she was referring to this spending period, rather than the next one. But, offered the chance to settle the matter, Balls declined. And who can blame him? With Osborne's growth and borrowing forecasts changing so rapidly (and not for the better), few can say what situation Labour would inherit. For now, the priority remains to push for an economic strategy that would, at least, limit the damage.

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls said that Labour would have to "justify every penny". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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