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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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit