Ed Balls's response to the Autumn Statement: full text

"We know they’re not very good at shooting badgers...they're not very good at shooting other people’s foxes either."

Mr Speaker,

The whole country will have seen today that, for all his boasts and utterly breathtaking complacency, the Chancellor is in complete denial about the central fact which is defining this Government’s time in office.

That under this Chancellor and this Prime Minister, for most people in our country, living standards are not rising, they are falling year on year.

So Mr Speaker, let me ask the Chancellor to demonstrate that he’s not completely out of touch with the cost of living crisis facing millions of people in our country.

Can he confirm that on average working people in our country are £1600 a year worse off than they were when he and the Prime Minister took office?

And that today’s OBR forecasts show that prices will continue to rise faster than wages this year and into next year too?

And that, as a result, people will be worse off in 2015 than they were in 2010?

Mr Speaker, isn’t this the truth – after three damaging years of flatlining, after the slowest recovery for over 100 years, from a Chancellor and a Prime Minister who said ‘we’re all in this together’ and then gave a huge tax cut to millionaires – working people aren’t better off under the Tories, they are worse off under the Tories.

And Mr Speaker, for all their complacent boasts, after three damaging and wasted years, for most people - in the constituencies of honourable members on all sides of this House - there is still no recovery at all.

So let me ask the Chancellor about the promises he made to this House on growth and living standards three years ago.

He said then that the economy would grow by more than 8.4 per cent by the end of this year.

But even after today's welcome upward revisions, growth is set to be half of that.

And Mr Speaker, didn’t the Chancellor pledge to get the banks lending – but net lending to businesses is now over £100 billion lower than in May 2010?

Didn’t he make the number one test of his economic credibility keeping the AAA credit rating – but it has been downgraded, not once but twice?

And as for his promise to balance the books by 2015, didn’t he confirm today that, in 2015, he is not balancing the books, he is borrowing £79 billion?

For all his smoke and mirrors he is borrowing £198 billion more than he planned in 2010.

More borrowing to pay for three years of economic failure. More borrowing in just three years under this Chancellor than under the last government in 13 years.

He used to say he would balance the books in 2015. Now he expects us to congratulate him for saying he’ll do it by 2019.

With this Government it’s clearly not just the badgers that move the goalposts.

And on energy bills, after their panicked and half-baked attempt to steal Labour’s clothes, we know they’re not very good at shooting badgers...they're not very good at shooting other people’s foxes either.

Because for three months the Leader of the Opposition has been calling for an energy price freeze.

And did the Chancellor announce an energy price freeze today? No he did not.

Can he confirm that when the energy companies have already announced price rises of £120 this year, his policy will still see energy prices rise by £70 this winter?

Mr Speaker, under this Chancellor, the only freeze this winter is the one facing millions of people who can’t afford to heat their homes.

Does he really think he can get away with tinkering around the edges? Moving the green levies that his own party introduced off the bills and onto the taxpayer and - surprise, surprise - letting the energy companies completely off the hook. They’re not paying a penny, Mr Speaker.

Doesn’t he realise that for millions of hard-pressed families, pensioners and businesses across our country, nothing less than a freeze will do?

And rather than hard-pressed taxpayers, it should be the excess profits of the energy companies that pick up the tab?

And as for the Prime Minister’s flagship policy for families of a tax break for marriage.

Why won’t the Chancellor admit the truth and tell the Prime Minister that this policy won’t even help the families he claims it will?

Because his own Treasury Minister has finally let the cat out of the bag.

I have it here in black and white. The Exchequer Secretary says “just under one-third of… married couples” will get the married couples tax allowance. And just one in six families with children will benefit.

Contrary to the Prime Minister’s claim in this House a few weeks ago, a married couple where both are paying basic rate income tax will get no benefit at all.

No wonder, Mr Speaker, his own Chancellor has this week told the Daily Telegraph that he thinks the Prime Minister’s policy is, and I quote, ‘a turkey of an idea’?

A turkey! The Chancellor thinks the Prime Minister’s flagship policy is a turkey. Merry Christmas, Prime Minister, Merry Christmas.

On this one I think the Chancellor’s right – the Prime Minister’s policy is a turkey of an idea.

I have to say, Mr Speaker, on the cost of living crisis and energy, and on supporting families, this Government just doesn’t get it.

And there’s a reason why this Prime Minister and this Chancellor are so out of touch that they believe most people are better off: it’s because the people on their Christmas card list have seen their bonuses rise and their taxes cut this year?

We have a Prime Minister and Chancellor who will stand up for the energy companies, they’ll stand up for the hedge funds, they’ll stand up for people earning over £150,000 – who get a tax cut.

But they won’t stand up for the millions of families and pensioners in our country, people struggling with rising energy bills, falling wages and higher childcare costs.

We all know and agree that rising life expectancy means we are going to have to work longer and that the Chancellor’s failure on growth and the deficit over the last three years means more tough spending decisions to come in the next Parliament.

But when the country is crying out for a government that will work with business to promote investment and wealth creation and build an economy that works for the many and not just the few does this Chancellor really think he can get away with tinkering at the edges, let the free market rip and wait for wealth to trickle down?

Mr Speaker, isn’t what the Chancellor has announced today the clearest evidence yet that they just don’t understand the scale of the challenge we face if we are to secure an investment-led recovery that works for all and not just a few – a strong recovery that’s built to last?

So let me ask the Chancellor, with housebuilding under this Government at its lowest level since the 1920s, doesn’t he see: his Help to Buy scheme to boost mortgage demand can only deliver a strong and balanced recovery if - as we and the IMF have urged - he matches it with more supply by building more affordable homes?

And can he tell the House why has infrastructure output actually fallen by 15 per cent since 2010? No wonder the CBI is upset.

On investment, why hasn’t he used the money from the planned increase in spectrum licence fees to endow a proper Business Investment Bank?

On tax avoidance, can he tell the House why has HMRC reported that the amount of uncollected tax rose last year?

And with almost one million young people now unemployed, a record number of people who want to work full-time being forced to accept part-time work, the work programme a flop, the welfare bill rising, and, as we learned today, the Universal Credit in complete and utter chaos.

No mention of Universal Credit in the statement. IDS: In Deep.. Shambles.

Isn’t the fact Mr Speaker, for all the shambles and chaos and rising welfare bills, what he has announced on youth unemployment is too little too late?

Help only for the under 21s only happening in the last weeks of this government in 2015.

Why isn't he being more ambitious? Why won't he repeat the successful tax on bank bonuses to pay for a compulsory job for young people – a job they’ll have to take or lose benefit?

Why won’t he remove the winter allowance from the richest 5 per cent of pensioners?

And why won’t he reverse his tax cut for hedge funds and protect disabled people in our country by scrapping the unfair and perverse bedroom tax?

Why won't he go further on the Bank Levy to expand free childcare for working parents and make work pay?

Can he confirm that, even after what he has announced today on fuel duty and his increases in the personal allowance his VAT rise, his cuts to tax credits and cuts to child benefit mean that on average families with children are worse off because of this Chancellor’s budgets. That's the truth Mr Speaker.

Giving with one hand, taking away much more with the other.

Mr Speaker, energy bills still rising this winter, no real action to tackle the cost-of-living crisis, no proper plan to earn our way to rising living standards for all and not just a few. Surely Britain can do better than this?

This complacent Chancellor sits there and thinks he deserves a pat on the back. I have to say, with bank bonuses rising again and millionaires enjoying a big tax cut, this is a policy which is working for a few.

But, as this Autumn Statement shows, with this out of touch Chancellor and Prime Minister, hard-working people are worse off under the Tories.

Ed Balls speaks at the Labour conference in Brighton earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder