Why Labour has not "surrendered" on public spending

Contrary to what conservatives suggest, Balls hasn't capitulated to Osborne. He supports stimulus now and investment after 2015.

Daniel Finkelstein is the latest fiscal conservative to hail Labour's apparent Damascene conversion to austerity. In today's Times he writes of Ed Balls's alleged "intellectual surrender", "the argument he once boldly made, that deficits don’t matter, has gone". 

Balls's speech last week was a significant moment. Not only did he reaffirm that Labour would have to keep most or all of the coalition's spending cuts, he stated that it would have to make its own (and suggested some too). But Finkelstein is wrong to present this as an epoch-defining capitulation to compare with 1976. 

To begin with, Balls's support for stimulus now remains unwavering. Under the political cover of the IMF, he called for the coalition to bring forward capital spending increases from 2015, "financed by a temporary rise in borrowing", in order to promote growth. Contrary to what Finkelstein suggests (recalling Jim Callaghan's famous words), he still believes that you can "spend your way out of recession". More borrowing, more spending remains the Keynesian remedy  prescribed by Balls. The consistent error of the right has been to equate support for stimulus with support for a larger state. As Balls has always acknowledged, a stimulus is, by definition, temporary. In the words of his hero Keynes, "The boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity at the Treasury." The true intellectual surrender would be for Labour to endorse Osborne's strategy of piling cuts on cuts, a path it has rightly rejected. 

But Finkelstein also overstates the extent to which Labour has committed itself to austerity after 2015. For Balls, Osborne's spending limits are a "starting point", not a blueprint. With growth of just 1.1 per cent since 2010 (compared to 2.9 per cent in Germany and 4.9 per cent in the US), he has adopted the prudent stance of preparing for the worst. But should growth surprise on the upside, he will be able to raise the baseline.

Nothing in Balls's speech precluded the possibility of Labour spending significantly more once a genuine recovery is underway. After all, the surge in expenditure under the last government (an average annual increase of 3.4 per cent) only came after Gordon Brown had stuck to the Tories' "eye-wateringly tight" spending limits. In the case of capital spending, Balls has already hinted that Labour will pledge to invest more than Osborne. As he said, "And for the future, we need to invest in the homes, transport and infrastructure Britain needs and ensure a recovery made by the many. Of course, here too we will only set our plans for investing in Britain’s future in the light of the economic circumstances at the time, and the needs of economic growth". 

Last week was not an "intellectual surrender"; it was an attempt to give Labour the political cover to be radical. 

George Osborne and Ed Balls attend the State Opening of Parliament on 8 May, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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