Balls's IMF response shows Labour's spending priorities

If the party does borrow for investment after 2015, it will be childcare, jobs and housing that benefit.

During the period when the economy was flatlining, Ed Balls used to respond to anaemic growth forecasts by calling on George Osborne to adopt his "five-point plan" to stimulate jobs and growth, including a cut in VAT to 17.5 per cent, a one-year National Insurance tax break for small firms, a repeat of the bank bonus tax to build 25,000 affordable homes and guarantee a job for 100,000 young people, accelerated infrastructure spending on schools, roads and transport, and a one-year cut in VAT on home improvments, repairs and maintenance. Had Osborne taken his advice, the UK would almost certainly be in a better position than it is now (output remains 2 per cent below its pre-recession peak and real wages, contrary to what David Cameron claimed at last week's PMQs, are still falling). 

But with a recovery finally underway (albeit the wrong kind of recovery), Balls's focus his shifted from short-term stimulus to long-term investment. In response to the IMF's upgrading of its growth forecast for the UK in 2014 from 1.9 per cent to 2.4 per cent, he said: 

After three damaging years of flatlining, any growth is both welcome and long overdue. But this is the slowest recovery for 100 years and working people are facing a cost-of-living crisis with real wages now down £1600 a year under David Cameron.

With business investment still weak and the IMF forecasting that UK growth will slow down again next year, it’s clear that this is not yet a recovery that is built to last. Simply to catch up all the lost ground since 2010 we need 1.5 per cent growth each quarter between now and the election.

Instead of more complacency from George Osborne we need Labour’s plan to secure a stronger recovery and earn our way to higher living standards for the many, not just a few at the top. That means reforms to our banks and energy market, expanding free childcare to make work pay, a compulsory jobs guarantee and a plan to build 200,000 new homes a year.

The last paragraph is particularly worth noting. While Balls has pledged that there will be no more borrowing for day-to-day spending in 2015-16, he has left open the option of borrowing for investment (capital spending). Should Labour pursue this course, it is the areas Balls cites - childcare, jobs and housing - that will benefit. Shadow childcare minister Lucy Powell, Ed Miliband's former deputy chief of staff (and an MP to watch), has smartly redefined childcare as an "infrastructure priority" in order to bolster the case for investment. As she wrote on The Staggers last year

While early years education is vital for child development and early intervention, childcare should be seen by government as an issue for business and a key infrastructure priority to promote growth and get people back to work, linking in with BIS responsibilities for flexible working and shared parental leave. That’s why I’m proposing that a future Labour government should have a Childcare and Early Years Minister with cross-departmental responsibilities in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Education coordinating support for working parents across government including working with Ministers in the Treasury and Department for Work and Pensions. Support for families should be shaped by what parents need rather than falling between the silos of government. Ensuring good quality early years education and child development goes hand in hand with getting the quality parents want to have so they feel happy leaving their children to return to work.

When I asked Balls during my recent interview with him whether Labour would borrow for investment, he told me: "In the speech I gave at Reuters in the summer, I said, and Ed and I both said, that’s a decision we should make much closer to the election when we’ve got more information about what the state of the economy is going to be. So we’ve been very clear, no more borrowing for day-to-day spending, but on the capital side that’s something that we’re going to continue to look at. I’m not going to rule it out, but I’m also not going to say now that it’s definitely the right thing to do."

While Balls is likely to come under greater pressure to confirm Labour's intentions as the year goes on, it's worth remembering that Gordon Brown waited until the start of 1997 before announcing his fiscal rules. In less benign economic circumstances, Balls and Miliband may not show their hand until 2015. 

Ed Balls speaks at the CBI conference in London last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage