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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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.