Balls's new strategy is a political masterstroke

His commitment to long-term fiscal discipline strengthens the case for short-term stimulus.

Ed Balls's speech isn't until this afternoon (we'll be live blogging his speech from 12pm) but it's been leading the news all morning. And with good reason. The shadow chancellor is preparing to unveil a new strategy which will see him maintain the case for short-term stimulus but commit to long-term fiscal discipline. Balls will promise to meet the two pledges set out by George Osborne - to eliminate the structural deficit and to ensure a falling debt-to-GDP ratio - and will announce that these will be monitored by the Office for Budget Responsibility (this morning, for the first time, he said that setting up the OBR was "the right thing to do".) In addition, he will promise that any windfall from the sale of state-owned bank shares (estimated by the OBR at £3.4bn) will be used exclusively to pay down the deficit and not to cut taxes.

Balls's smart calculation is that these promises will provide him with the political cover necessary to make the case for renewed stimulus in the form of a temporary cut in VAT and other measures (he has promised to set out a five-point plan for restoring growth in his speech). As Keynes put it: "The boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity at the Treasury." This is an economic truth that entirely eludes George Osborne. The eurozone crisis has demonstrated precisely why austerity is self-defeating. As Balls argued this morning, there is no reason to believe that the markets would panic if Britain slowed the pace of its deficit reduction programme, not least while the UK can borrow at near historic lows. "The markets know that if economies aren't growing, then you get into a vicious circle and your debt dynamics can actually make a debt unsustainable," he said.

Osborne will reply that Balls's answer to a debt crisis is always more debt. But his own strategy has reduced growth, increased unemployment and, consequently, slowed the pace of deficit reduction (Osborne has already been forced to announce an extra £46bn of borrowing). As the self-defeating nature of Osborne's approach becomes clearer, voters will look for an alternative. Balls is providing it.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Leader: Theresa May and the resurgence of the state

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years.

Theresa May entered office in more tumultuous circumstances than any other prime minister since 1945. The UK’s vote to leave the European Union was a remarkable rebuke to the political and business establishment and an outcome for which few had prepared. Mrs May recognised that the result was more than a revolt against Brussels. It reflected a deeper alienation and discontent. Britain’s inequalities of wealth and opportunity, its regional imbalances and its distrusted political class all contributed to the Remain campaign’s ­defeat. As she said in her speech in Birmingham on 11 July: “Make no mistake, the referendum was a vote to leave the European Union, but it was also a vote for serious change.”

When the financial crisis struck in 2007-2008, David Cameron, then leader of the opposition, was caught out. His optimistic, liberal Conservative vision, predicated on permanent economic growth, was ill-suited to recession and his embrace of austerity tainted his “modernising” project. From that moment, the purpose of his premiership was never clear. At times, austerity was presented as an act of pragmatic bookkeeping; at others, as a quest to shrink the state permanently.

By contrast, although Mrs May cautiously supported Remain, the Leave vote reinforced, rather than contradicted, her world-view. As long ago as March 2013, in the speech that signalled her leadership ambitions, she spoke of the need to confront “vested interests in the private sector” and embrace “a more strategic role” for the state. Mrs May has long insisted on the need to limit free movement of people within the ­European Union, and anticipated the causes of the Leave vote. The referendum result made the national reckoning that she had desired inevitable.

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years. She has promised worker representation on company boards, binding shareholder votes on executive pay, improved corporate governance and stricter controls on foreign takeovers.

The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has set the ­Labour Party on a similar course, stating in his conference speech that the “winds of globalisation” are “blowing against the belief in the free market and in favour of intervention”. He pointedly criticised governments which did not try to save their domestic steel industries as China dumped cheap steel on to global markets.

We welcome this new mood in politics. As John Gray wrote in our “New Times” special issue last week, by reasserting the role of the state as the final guarantor of social ­cohesion, Mrs May “has broken with the neoliberal model that has ruled British politics since the 1980s”.

The Prime Minister has avoided the hyperactive style of many new leaders, but she has deviated from David Cameron’s agenda in several crucial respects. The target of a national Budget surplus by 2020 was rightly jettisoned (although Mrs May has emphasised her commitment to “living within our means”). Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement on 23 November will be the first test of the government’s ­fiscal boldness. Historically low borrowing costs have strengthened the pre-existing case for infrastructure investment to support growth and spread prosperity.

The greatest political ­challenge facing Mrs May is to manage the divisions within her party. She and her government must maintain adequate access to the European single market, while also gaining meaningful control of immigration. Her statist economic leanings are already being resisted by the free-market fundamentalists on her benches. Like all prime ministers, Mrs May must balance the desire for clarity with the need for unity.

“Brexit means Brexit,” she has repeatedly stated, underlining her commitment to end the UK’s 43-year European
affair. If Mrs May is to be a successful and even transformative prime minister, she must also prove that “serious change” means serious change and a determination to create a society that does not only benefit the fortunate few. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories