There were two main aims of Ed Balls's speech on the economy today. The first was to reassure voters that while continuing to support stimulus now, Labour would pursue fiscal responsibility in office. While refusing to play George Osborne's game by saying whether he would stick to the coalition's 2015-16 spending plans ("when we do not know the economic circumstances two months ahead, let alone two years"), he emphasised that, before the election, Labour would adopt its own fiscal rules to eliminate the current deficit and reduce the national debt as share of GDP. Balls also signalled that, with growth finally returning, he would soon abandon his expensive pledge to introduce a temporary VAT cut (which Ed Miliband had such trouble defending in his infamous World At One interview) in favour of long-term capital investment. He said:
Today, with growth prospects still very uncertain and interest rates too low to be of use, a temporary VAT cut now is still the right prescription before extra capital spending can come on stream – although any immediate tax cut which helps middle and lower income families is better than nothing.
But over the coming year if, as we all hope, some kind of recovery does take hold, then the balance of advantage will shift from temporary tax cuts to long-term capital investment.
The second aim was to begin the task of forcing the left to accept that not only will Labour be unable to reverse most of the cuts imposed by the coalition, it will have to make its own. As Balls pointedly noted, "The next Labour government will have to plan on the basis of falling departmental spending."
The announcement that Labour would remove the winter fuel allowance from the wealthiest 5 per cent of pensioners is pretty small beer. While Ed Miliband's abandonment of universalism is politically significant (it opens the door to further benefit cuts), the move will save just £100m a year (less than half a per cent of the £207bn welfare bill), meaning that it barely qualifies as a rounding error. But Balls went on to outline, in greater detail than before, other, larger cuts and efficiency savings that a Labour government would seek to make. Since the shadow chancellor wants to give himself maximum flexibility in 2015, they were proposed in the form of questions (as was the winter fuel allowance cut) but, for now, they are the best guide we have to where Balls's axe would fall. Here's my summary:
- Not opening new free schools in areas with excess places. Balls derided "vanity schools projects" and suggested that Labour would not open new free schools in areas with a surplus of secondary school places. ("With primary school places in short supply in many parts of the country, and parents struggling to get their children into a local school, can it really be a priority to open more free schools in 2015 and 2016 in areas with excess secondary school places?")
- Scrapping Police and Crime Commissioners. ("When we are losing thousands of police officers and police staff, how have we ended up spending more on police commissioners than the old police authorities, with more elections currently timetabled for 2016?")
- Cancelling the new 2,000-place "Titan" prison recently proposed by Chris Grayling. ("Has the Ministry of Justice properly made the case for a major new 'Titan' prison, at a time when the prison population is falling?")
- Abolishing High Speed Two Limited, the company developing the new rail network. Balls suggested that this role could be performed more effectively by Network Rail ("Should we be spending millions on a separate company to deliver High Speed 2 when we already have Network Rail, which after all is responsible for rail infrastructure?")
- Cutting the number of army officers and admirals. ("Do we need more admirals than ships and more officers in our forces than our international counterparts at a time when frontline armed forces are under pressure?")
- Merging the four separate government motorist agencies. ("Do we really need four separate government agencies delivering services to motorists?")
- Combining management functions. in government departments, agencies, fire services and police forces. ("Does it really make sense to have separate costly management and bureaucracy for so many separate government departments, agencies, fire services and police forces - the same number as when this Government came into office - all with separate leadership structures and separate specialist teams?")
- Requiring industries to contribute more to the cost of regulation. ("Should industries pay a greater share of the costs of their regulators?")
The aim of these cuts and savings will be to free up funds for Labour's priorities (which Balls promised a "relentless focus" on): employment, housing, childcare, the NHS and social care. Based on his speech today, it is likely that Labour will go into the election promising to spend more than Tories in areas such as infrastructure (borrowing to invest), while giving itself the political cover to do so by adopting new fiscal rules, independently monitored by the OBR, and promising to control welfare spending (Miliband will announce his support for a cap on structural benefits, such as housing benefit, in his speech on welfare on Thursday). The defining political question is whether this will be enough to reassure a sceptical electorate, less than a third of whom believe Labour can be trusted to manage the nation's public finances, that it wouldn't "crash the car" all over again.