Balls reaffirms Labour's commitment to cuts in 2015

Labour states unambiguously that it will be "cutting departmental spending in 2015-16" and will not borrow for "day-to-day spending".

While Labour's "cost-of-living" offensive has allowed it to reframe the economic debate in its favour, senior figures in the party know that it will struggle to win a majority unless it can convince voters that it can be trusted to spend money wisely. As Ed Balls says in his interview in today's FT, "Unless we can show . . . that we’ve got a plan which will work, the public won’t think that we will solve the cost of living crisis". 

To prove that Labour does have such a plan, Balls has launched the first phase of his "zero-based" spending review today. A zero-based review differs from others by requiring every item of spending to be approved, rather than merely changes to a pre-determined baseline. In other words, nothing is off the table. Labour plans to scrutinise spending in every area, including those protected by the coalition: the NHS, schools and international development. The document contains the most explicit statement yet that the party will cut departmental spending in 2015-16 and will not borrow to meet day-to-day spending:

We will be cutting departmental spending in 2015-16 and not raising it, with no more borrowing to cover day-to-day spending
The deficit forecasts might be slightly less dreadful than before (the OBR now expects the deficit to be £79bn in 2015-16 compared to £96bn in March; its 2010 forecast was £20bn), but the OBR's judgement that the improvement in the public finances is almost entirely cyclical means that the structural deficit (the part of the deficit that exists regardless of the level of economic output) is deemed to be no smaller than before; austerity cannot be avoided. 
 
But while Labour is committed to matching Osborne's departmental spending plans, there are many different ways to spend £313bn (the spending limit set by the coalition for 2015-16). While remaining within the Chancellor's fiscal envelope, Labour plans to identify "savings" and "switches" that better reflect its "priorities" (what Nye Bevan called "the religion of socialism"). As Balls suggested in his speech in June, this could include withdrawing funding for free schools in areas with surplus places, scrapping Police and Crime Commissioners, cutting the number of army officers and admirals, merging the four separate government motorist agencies, combining management functions in government departments, agencies, fire services and police forces, and requiring industries to contribute more to the cost of regulation. The party is also likely to vary the ratio of spending cuts to tax rises within Osborne's deficit reduction programme, for instance by reintroducing the 50p tax rate. 
 
These switch-spends and tax decisions will be included in Labour's manifesto, with a full Spending Review to follow after the election. It is also in the manifesto that the party will announce which areas, if any, it intends to ring-fence. This will almost certainly include the NHS. Polls show that it is the most popular spending area with voters and the above-average rate of inflation in the health service means it frequently requires real-terms rises just to stand still. With the Tories making it clear that they would continue to ring-fence the NHS after 2015, Labour has no intention of handing them an easy political victory. 
 
Here's the timetable for the zero-based review:
Phase 1 of the Zero-Based Review will involve the Shadow Chief Secretary and the Treasury team working with individual departments on a detailed response to the questions raised in this initial document. 
 
Phase 2 of the work will then identify initial savings and switches to reflect Labour's priorities and report before our manifesto. 
 
Phase 3 covering our first year in Government, will see the implementation of any immediate switches/changes to inherited plans and work on a full spending review for 2016-17 onwards. 
Two other points are worth noting. The first is that Balls has left himself room to borrow more than Osborne to fund investment in infrastructure, telling the FT that "any decision about capital" will depend on "the state of the economy". While polls show that voters are supportive of borrowing for areas such as housing, Labour will need to make the argument early enough to counter the inevitable charge from the Tories that it is planning more of the borrowing that "got us into this mess". 
 
The second is that the big fiscal question is not whether Labour will match the coalition's spending limits in 2015-16 (most governments deviate little from the plans they inherit) but whether it will remain within Osborne's envelope for the entire parliament. But for both political and economic reasons, don't expect an answer to that until after 2015. 
Ed Balls speaks at the CBI's annual conference on November 4, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses