Balls confirms that Labour will vote against Osborne's welfare bill

Shadow chancellor says his party will oppose any bill that unfairly hits working families.

Appearing at Treasury questions in the Commons, Ed Balls has just confirmed that Labour will vote against the government's Welfare Uprating Bill, which would cap benefit increases at 1 per cent for the next three years. "If he [George Osborne] intends to go ahead with such an unfair hit on mid-and lower-income working families, while he’s giving a £3bn top rate tax cut, we will oppose it, Mr Speaker," Balls said. In response, Osborne declared that Labour would have to explain "to the hard-working people of this country" why it planned to oppose "yet another measure to deal with the deficit".

It is Osborne who starts with the advantage. A YouGov poll at the weekend found that 33 per cent of voters think it was right to limit increases in benefits to 1 per cent, 19 per cent think the government should have gone further and frozen them completely, and 35 per cent think they should have been increased in line with inflation or more.

But Labour believes the Chancellor has miscalculated by announcing a measure that will largely fall on working households. Sixty per cent of those families affected are in work and, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the average one earner couple will be £534 a year worse off by 2015. Expect Labour to also constantly remind the public that Osborne is simultaneously reducing the top rate of income tax from 50p to 45p, a measure that will benefit the average income-millionaire by £107,000. One challenge for the party, however, will be explaining why it opposes a 1 per cent cap on benefit increases but supports a 1 per cent cap on public sector pay.

In an eventful session, Osborne also announced that the 2013 Budget will be held on 20 March.

Labour leader Ed Miliband and shadow chancellor Ed Balls. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.