Balls: we're losing the battle but we'll win the war

Shadow chancellor insists that "in the end, good economics is good politics too."

If George Osborne can't eliminate the deficit in this parliament, we will do so in the next. That's the fiscally responsible message from Ed Balls in today's Times. The failure of Osborne's plan means that any future Labour government will inherit a budget deficit of £79bn (4.5 per cent of GDP) and a structural deficit of -1.6 per cent. The result is that Balls's party will be forced to cut (or tax) more than it ever previously imagined (a point made eloquently by In the black Labour)

With this in mind, the shadow chancellor repeats the message that he delivered in his conference speech earlier this year: Labour will set itself "tough fiscal rules" before the next election and will use any windfall from the sale of the bank shares to repay the national debt, rather than fund a giveaway. He writes: "Credibility is based on trust and trust is based on honesty, so we must be clear with the British people that under Labour there will have to be cuts."

The weakness remains that Labour is alarmingly vague about where it would cut. No one expects a shadow spending review but Balls and others must do far more to convince voters that their commitment to cuts is more than just rhetorical. Even Diane Abbott had Trident.

For now, Balls is clear that his plan would mean more borrowing, not less. The difference is that while Labour would borrow to fund growth, Osborne is borrowing to meet the cost of unemployment. He writes: "The argument is whether it is better to be borrowing billions more to keep people out of work on benefits or whether action now to get our economy moving will get more people into work paying tax and help to get the deficit down in a fairer way." But that's not an easy argument for Labour to make in the current circumstances. Balls is attacking Osborne for missing his deficit targets while simultaneously making the case for higher borrowing.

As he writes:

I have heard much advice over the past year from people who admit that combining stimulus now to get the economy moving with a tough but balanced medium-term deficit plan may be good economics, but they argue that it is bad politics because it is "out of tune" with the public mood.

That is a tacit acknowledgement that, despite a slew of terrible data, the Tories are still winning the economic debate. Osborne's lead over Balls as the best Chancellor (30 per cent to 24 per cent) actually rose in the wake of the autumn statement and more people still blame the last Labour government (32 per cent) for low growth than the current government (28 per cent).

But Balls finishes by mischievously quoting his "old friend" Ken Clarke, who argues that, in the end, "good economics is good politics too." The shadow chancellor's wager is that while Labour is losing the battle, it will win the war. His party's fortunes depend on him being right.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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