Balls's smart new dividing line with Osborne: a recovery for the few or one for the many?

With the return of the economy to growth, the shadow chancellor seeks to shift the terms of the debate in Labour's favour.

This week's GDP figures (released on Thursday) will further cheer Tory spirits, with the economy thought to have grown by around 0.6% in the second quarter. It may have been three years in coming, but finally, it seems, the recovery has begun.

For Labour, the return of growth represents a political challenge. While welcoming the positive figures, it must avoid letting George Osborne off the hook for what remains the slowest recovery for more than 100 years. In his pre-emptive response in today's Guardian, Ed Balls attempts to perform this balancing act, describing any growth as "both welcome and hugely overdue". In order to make up the ground the UK has lost since 2010, he notes, the economy would need to grow by 1.3% a quarter for the next two years. 

It was Balls who, almost alone among the political class, warned that premature tax rises and spending cuts could strangle growth in his 2010 Bloomberg speech. But as he conceded in another recent speech, the last thing the public "want to hear from any politician is 'we told you so'". Labour must avoid making the error of attempting to re-run the 2010 election and of seeking to prove a counter-factual: that growth would have been stronger had the last government remained in power. 

Mindful of this, Balls wisely uses the piece to stake out a new dividing line with Osborne. The question now is less whether we have a recovery or not (although, as he rightly points, no one should repeat the error of taking growth for granted) but what kind of recovery we have. Is it one for the few or one for the many? While bank bonuses rose to £4bn in April as high-earners deferred their payouts in order to take advantage of the reduction in the top rate of tax from 50p to 45p, real wages are still falling and are forecast to do so until at least 2015. The next election could be the first in modern history that sees the majority of voters worse off at the end of the parliament than they were at the start. 

It's a smart line of attack, which is why it's encouraging that Labour seems intent on developing it. Balls announces that later this week he will launch a transatlantic commission on "inclusive prosperity" with Larry Summers, his former Harvard tutor and Bill Clinton's former Treasury secretary, to "investigate what reforms our countries need to generate more high-wage jobs for the future".

Many on the left have criticised Summers for his role in the 1990s financial deregulation that paved the way for the crash (for which he has since apologised), but he has consistently been on the right side of the austerity vs. stimulus debate, memorably declaring in April 2011: "I find the idea of an expansionary fiscal contraction in the context of the world in which we now live to be every bit as oxymoronic as it sounds. And I think the consequences are likely to be very serious for the countries involved."

He added of Britain: "I have always been a believer in being an empiricist about my convictions. So I would be happy to say that if Britain enjoys a boom over the next two years, coming from increased confidence I would be required to quite radically rethink my view as to how the macro economy operates…and be quite contrite about the seriousness of the misjudgements that I’m making. Those of you who know me can make a judgement about how big a risk I would take of putting myself in a position of great contrition and you might therefore conclude that I’m fairly confident that this experiment is not going to work out well." Unfortunately for the UK, Summers was entirely right in his assessment.

But while Balls and his fellow Keynesians lost the debate in 2010, they could yet win it in 2015. In that task, Summers will prove a valuable ally. 

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

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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