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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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.