How Labour can credibly pledge to outspend the Tories

While restricting current spending, the party should promise to invest the proceeds of growth into future-facing areas like skills, childcare and infrastructure.

Labour must make a fundamental choice; whether to broadly accept George Osborne’s fiscal plans or commit to spending more. Until that decision is made, the question of whether Labour is tacking to the left or hugging tight to the coalition will remain unanswered: 'follow the money', to use the old Watergate maxim.

A Fabian Society commission has spent the last year examining this choice by considering the impact of rolling forward the chancellor’s current plans, as well as asking how much more it might be possible for a future government to spend and what that money might do.

The inquiry concluded that the coalition’s existing plans for 2016 and 2017 would translate into an almost unthinkable decline in public provision. Councils would be able to deliver little more than their statutory social care and refuse collection duties. Some government departments would end up with less than half the budgets they started with in 2010. And a further round of deep social security cuts would be needed, with George Osborne’s proposal to remove benefits from young people only the start.

A future government should do everything it can to avoid making these choices, but it must also remain totally committed to deficit reduction, for both economic and political reasons. That leaves a tight-rope to walk, between fiscal denial and spending cuts which will cause huge harm. Exactly how much more money a future government will be able to spend will depend on how well the economy is doing, because rising GDP feeds through into extra tax revenue. But the Fabian commission concluded that any party wishing to offer a convincing alternative to the coalition should aim to spend £20bn more in 2017 than the government now intends.

This would be enough extra money to avoid the worst of the pain scheduled for after the next election. But an incoming government would still need to make some hard decisions, which could prove very uncomfortable for Labour activists. For example, it would probably be possible to avoid big new cuts, but most departments would see spending frozen or increased by inflation only. The government would also need to find money from social security, so some entitlements would need to be cut unless economic recovery creates unexpected savings. There will almost certainly need to be a debate about 'least bad' benefit cuts, with fresh attention to some of the more marginal pensioner benefits.

Labour won’t win the argument, however, if the fiscal debate is just about spending 'more' or 'less'. The left also needs to set out the positive case for spending, by arguing that the composition of public expenditure must change. Under the coalition, the spending priorities have been healthcare and pensions. Both are very important, but without enough money to go round, the result has been deep cuts to the sort of future-facing spending which brings long term prosperity: skills, childcare, infrastructure, innovation and job creation.

The Fabian commission proposes that in 2016 and 2017, spending on these areas should receive the same special protection as the NHS budget does today. It also argues for a permanent increase to capital spending. With these reforms a future government could show that higher expenditure is the only way to spend on the future without sacrificing the vulnerable, old and sick of today.

Labour will no doubt worry about the political attacks it will face if it is to promise more spending. And it is true that some of the extra money would probably need to come from tax rises, although these can be limited to high income groups. For example the Fabian commission heard that many billions could be saved through reform of pension tax relief, so that rich workers only receive the same public subsidy for each pound they save as everyone else.

But the improving economic outlook also offers some cover for the proponents of higher spending, since projections for tax revenue will soon be revised upwards. The coalition seems likely to commit the money to accelerating deficit reduction or pre-election tax cuts. Labour can promise an alternative; to recycle the 'proceeds of growth' into productive, pro-growth public expenditure. A promise to spend more after 2015 need not be seen just as a shift to the left. It is also a commitment to Britain’s long-term future.

2030 Vision: The final report of the Fabian Society Commission on Future Spending Choices is published today. Read it on the Fabian Society's website here 

Ed Miliband and Ed Balls at the Labour conference in Brighton last month. Photograph: Getty Images.

Andrew Harrop is general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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