Balls exploits the Tories' normality deficit

Calling for cheaper prices is an attempt to portray Cameron and Osborne as out of touch.

The big news line from Ed Balls's speech at the London School of Economics this morning is the call for an emergency tax cut. George Osborne's Plan A for the economy isn't working, the shadow chancellor argued. Again. The economy needs a jump start of fiscal loosening in the form of a temporary VAT reduction. Balls made a pretty robust case for cutting sales taxes -- it can be implemented immediately; it releases cash directly to consumers and company bottom lines. He also argued that the VAT cut introduced by Alistair Darling in the 2008 pre-budget report worked, citing an Institute for Fiscal Studies analysis for corroboration.

Labour got rough ride over that decision. In fact, it was widely ridiculed with jibes along the lines: "how does shaving a few pennies off the price of a new TV save the economy from crisis?" But that was before inflation had become an urgent concern for squeezed consumers and the government. When challenged on the effectiveness of the proposed cut in the Q&A after the speech, Balls had a deft political parry: Tory critics might not notice a VAT holiday (the implication being that they can afford higher prices) but ordinary folk would.

Both Labour and Tory private polling shows the public are wary of David Cameron and George Osborne as "not like ordinary people" -- distant, aloof. Balls and Miliband haven't yet found a way of really capitalising on the Conservatives' normality deficit, but calling for cheaper prices at the checkout is a try.

This was billed as a lecture rather than a speech -- a forensic critique of the government's macroeconomic strategy and not just another blast of political rhetoric.

But this is Ed Balls, we're talking about; the man who was once described to me by a senior Labour party strategist as "someone who wakes up every morning asking himself how he can destroy the Tories." The economic argument around the deficit was pretty familiar -- a rococo riff on the established theme of "too far, too fast". The political angle shone through in repeated references to the Tories' shambolic exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) in 1992. The argument is that George Osborne's single-minded determination to stick with fiscal Plan A is starting to resemble Norman Lamont's predicament, sticking with a fixed exchange rate as evidence mounted that it was an unsustainable arrangement. Whereas Lamont was institutionally locked into the ERM, Balls argues, Osborne could change course. There are alternatives. Lamont's hands were tied; Osborne's are not. That makes the rigidity all the more perverse and the Chancellor more culpable if things go wrong.

I counted ten references to the ERM. It was the unifying theme of the speech. Of course it was. The ERM exit -- Black Wednesday -- was famously the moment the Tories lost credibility on the economy. David Cameron was an advisor to Lamont at the time. No wonder Balls wants the analogy to stick.

An aside: Balls had a relatively contrite line about Labour's fiscal record. "Of course we didn't spend all of the money wisely. No government does." When I asked him to specify where there had been a lack of wisdom he cited Labour's multiple and wasteful reorganisations in healthcare, in particular the fiddling around with the structure of Primary Care Trusts. It's a good one to own up to, for pretty obvious reasons.

The spending line was one of a few very last minute additions to the speech, tacked on this morning, apparently; recognition perhaps that Labour needs to sound a little more penitent about the past before it can be trusted to talk about the future?

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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