Why the return of growth doesn't prove that Balls was wrong

The shadow chancellor never said that there would be no recovery, only that it would be painfully slow. And he was right.

When the GDP figures are published tomorrow morning at 9:30am, the cry will go up from the Tories and their media allies that Ed Balls's credibility has been destroyed. They might not like Ed Miliband, but they reserve a special animus for the shadow chancellor. For them, the return of growth proves that Balls's critique of George Osborne's austerity programme was fundamentally wrong; Labour will not be taken seriously until he is thrown overboard. 

If Balls is such a liability to his party, one wonders why so many Conservatives exert so much energy calling for his departure (the answer, as some privately acknowledge, is that he is one of Labour's greatest assets). But put this Machiavellian gamesmanship to one side, the claim that it is Osborne, not Balls, who has been vindicated doesn't bear scrutiny. 

Contrary to the right, Balls never said that there would be no recovery, only that it would be painfully slow. On this point he was entirely right. The return of growth after three years of stagnation is nothing to celebrate. As Balls writes today, "we would need 1.4 per cent growth in each and every quarter between now and the election simply to catch up all the ground lost since 2010." Even if we learn tomorrow that the economy grew by 1% in the third quarter, output will still be 2.3% below its pre-recession peak. In the US, by contrast, where the Obama administration maintained fiscal stimulus, the economy is 3.2% larger than in 2007. Growth of 1% in Q3 would mean that the economy has expanded by just 2.8% since autumn 2010, compared to the 7.7% forecast by the OBR. 

Not all of this can be blamed on Osborne. The continued fragility of the banking sector, the rise in global commodity prices and the eurozone crisis have all constrained growth. But it is precisely for these reasons that wise minds counselled the Chancellor against austerity. As Balls warned in his celebrated Bloomberg speech in 2010, Osborne was "ripping out the foundations of the house just as the hurricane is about to hit". Hippocrates’s injunction to "first, do no harm" should have been his watchword. Instead, with the private sector already contracting, he chose to tighten the squeeze. We are still paying the price today. The double-dip may have been revised away (growth was 0% in Q1 2012 rather than -0.1%; only an economic illiterate would celebrate that) but the austerians didn't only  promise that Britain would avoid another recession, they promised, in the words of Osborne's first Budget, "a steady and sustained economic recovery". What we got was the slowest recovery for more than 100 years. 

Then there is the claim that Labour is only now talking about living standards in a desperate attempt to distract attention from the macroeconomy. As Tim Montgomerie writes in today's Times, "The Opposition won’t acknowledge the recovery but it’s interesting to note what Labour politicians have stopped saying. Ed Balls isn’t talking about a double dip any more. Ed Miliband isn’t calling for the abandonment of Plan A. Labour has moved the goalposts and now talking about the cost of living crisis — a genuine challenge but a different one."

Yet it was on the day after his election as Labour leader that Ed Miliband first used the phrase "the squeezed middle" and it was in February 2011, a few weeks after being appointed as shadow chancellor, that Balls first spoke of a "cost of living crisis". Three months later, in a speech at the LSE, he argued: 

[T]he test for the Treasury isn't just whether they can post better growth rates - we all know the economy will return to stronger growth eventually - it's whether they can make up all this lost ground in jobs and living standards

It is precisely because the recovery has been so weak that real wages have fallen for the longest peirod since 1870. As Osborne himself noted in his conference speech, the cost of living cannot be detached from "the performance of the economy". Rising GDP is no longer a guarantee of rising wages (the point Labour is rightly emphasising) but the near-absence of growth for three years explains why British workers have suffered more than most. Since mid-2010, average hourly wages have fallen by 5.5%, a faster rate of decline than every EU country except Portugal, the Netherlands and Greece. For Osborne to now lecture others on the importance of growth to living standards takes chutzpah to a new level. Wages have fallen for 39 of the 40 months that Osborne has sat in the Treasury (the exception being April 2013 when deferred bonuses were paid out following the abolition of the 50p tax rate).

The living standards crisis wasn't an unavoidable coincidence of the lack of growth, but an inevitable consequence. Before the Tory spin machine whirls into action tomorrow, it's worth remembering this. 

Ed Balls and George Osborne attend the State Opening of Parliament, in the House of Lords at the Palace of Westminster in London May 8, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

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

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