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.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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