Ed Balls declares: Labour’s cuts would have been too savage

Balls is right. Labour’s spending plans would have meant cuts of 20 per cent.

The coalition may be planning to cut all non-ring-fenced budgets by 25 per cent but it's worth remembering that Labour's cuts wouldn't have been much less savage. The Brown/Darling pledge to halve the deficit by 2014 would have seen cuts of 20 per cent to all non-protected departments.

So Ed Balls's declaration that this promise was a mistake deserves to be taken seriously. It's a more credible position than those campaigning against "Tory cuts" while refusing to accept that this means a slower pace of deficit reduction.

Balls told the BBC:

I always accepted collective responsibility but at the time, in 2009, I thought the pace of deficit reduction through spending cuts was not deliverable, I didn't think it could have been done.

This leaves open the possibility of a more even split between spending cuts and tax rises (George Osborne currently envisages a 77:23 ratio, Darling favoured 67:33). After all, during the last big fiscal tightening undertaken by a Conservative government, Ken Clarke split the pain 50:50 between tax rises and spending cuts. But Balls goes on to suggest that major cuts shouldn't take place until the economy has recovered fully:

We'll have to wait and see where we are once this huge risky experiment has been tried on our economy by the Conservatives and the Liberals. I can't start pre-empting how things will be in a few years' time but, you know, in my department I set out a third of a billion pounds of cuts, so obviously I'm not unafraid to make difficult decisions.

With confirmation today that growth in the first quarter of this year was just 0.3 per cent, the cautionary principle suggests that dramatic cuts should not take place until the economy is out of intensive care.

Balls, like some of his rivals for the Labour leadership, has belatedly adopted a clear line on the deficit. David Miliband has let it be known that he still supports the original pledge to halve the deifict by 2014, while Andy Burnham has come out against the coalition's absurd pledge to ring-fence the £110bn NHS budget.

I've heard remarkably little from either Ed Miliband or Diane Abbott on the deficit, but perhaps Balls's move will stir them into life.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear