Labour rejects claims it would outspend the Tories as "total rubbish"

A source tells the NS that the party has not decided whether to match Osborne's post-2015 spending limits and says it would be "irresponsible" to do otherwise.

Back in 1997, in a bid to assure the electorate of its economic credibility, Labour famously pledged to stick to the Tories' public spending limits for the first two years of the new parliament. The move meant public services were initially drained of resources (the plans were described by then-chancellor Ken Clarke as "eye-wateringly tight") but history has recorded it as a political success. 

As he seeks to burnish his own economic credentials, some in Labour have been urging Ed Miliband to repeat this trick and sign up to the coalition's post-2015 spending plans (a subject I explored in the NS back in January). Such a move, so the theory goes, would repel the Tories' "deficit denier" attacks and convince voters that the party can be trusted with the nation's purse strings again. 

To date, it is an option that Miliband and Ed Balls have notably refused to rule out. As chief economic adviser to Gordon Brown, Balls helped mastermind the original 1997 pledge and has already declared that his "starting point" is that Labour will "have to keep all these cuts", a step towards accepting Osborne’s baseline. When Harriet Harman told the Spectator in September that Labour would not match the Tories’ spending plans and abandon its "fundamental economic critique" of the coalition, she was forced to issue a retraction.

But today's Independent reports that there is now a "growing consensus" in the shadow cabinet in favour of rejecting Osborne's spending limits and outlining an alternative strategy. Instead of promising to match the Tories' planned pace of deficit reduction, the paper says the party will pledge to invest in priority areas such as housing. It's important to point out that this doesn't mean Labour won't impose cuts elsewhere, rather it means splitting the burden more equally between cuts and tax rises and reducing borrowing (which, owing to the failure of Osborne's plan, is forecast to be £108bn in 2014-15) at a rate the economy can bear. 

Unsurprisingly, the Conservatives have leapt gleefully on the story, with the Tory Treasury Twitter account declaring, "we now know that Labour will go into the election with a plan to borrow and spend more, putting up the deficit". George Osborne, who remains the Conservatives' chief electoral strategist, has long hoped to run his own version of the party's successful 1992 campaign, which accused Labour of planning a "tax bombshell" after Neil Kinnock and John Smith chose not to match John Major's spending plans. But could the Tories' joy could be premature? A Labour source described the Independent story to me as "total rubbish", adding:

They've taken some Fabian Society report out next week which says Labour should not match Tory spending plans post 2015 and spun it as the view of the leadership. As we've always said, we will not make our tax and spending commitments till the time of the election. It would be irresponsible to do otherwise, who knows where the economy and public finances will be in two months' time, let alone two years.

As in 1997, Labour is likely to wait until just a few months before the general election before announcing its decision. Balls and Miliband have learned from the mistakes of the Tories, who promised to match Labour's spending plans in 2007 only to abandon this pledge after the crash in 2008.

But the question remains: has Labour genuinely not made up its mind or has it merely chosen not to tell us yet? My guess is the former but it's likely that Miliband, a leader who thrives on defying conventional wisdom, is minded to reject Osborne's spending limits. A pledge to do otherwise (a trick straight out of the New Labour playbook) would run entirely counter to the post-Blairite spirit of his leadership. Embracing Tory levels of austerity would also deny the economy the stimulus it will badly need and split the left. The challenge facing Labour is finding a means of rejecting Osborne's plans while simultaneously convicing the electorate that it can be trusted not to "crash the car" again. 

Update: Ed Balls was on LBC radio this morning (a slot dubbed "Balls Calls") and described the Independent report as "simply wrong". He said: 

It is an exclusive but it is wrong I’m afraid Nick and you know, it is a report of a Fabian Society commission which comes out next week. The Fabian Society is a research society, it has been there for 100 years, affiliated with the Labour Party, they are coming up with some conclusions about spending. It is not Labour Party policy. It is not something that I’ve even discussed…

Balls added that it would be "totally irresponsible" for him "to come along on here or the Independent and tell you our tax and spending plans two years before the election".  

Again, however, it is notable that Balls has not ruled out promising to outspend the Tories. He has merely restated that Labour will not publicly announce its decision until closer to the election. As I wrote above, it is plausible that in private Labour takes the view that it should reject Osborne's spending limits. 

Ed Miliband and Ed Balls at the Labour conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.