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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“Anyone can do it, I promise you!”: meet the BBC’s astronaut-ballerina

Why science needs to be more open to women, minorities - and ballet.

Whether dancing on stage with the English National Ballet or conducting an experiment for her PhD in quantum physics, 29 year-old Merritt Moore often appears a model of composure. But in last Sunday's opening episode of BBC2's Astronauts: do you have what it takes? we got to see what happens when high-achievers like Merritt hit breaking point.

Merritt is one of 12 candidates attempting to win the approval of Chris Hadfield, former commander of the International Space Station. Along with her fellow competitors, who include mountaineers and fighter pilots, the dancer has had to face a series of gruelling tasks designed to measure her potential to operate well in space; from flying a helicopter, to performing a blood test on her own arm.

Many of these tasks left Merritt far outside her comfort zone. “I’ve only failed my driving test three times and crashed every car I’ve gotten into - but I think helicopters are different?!” she joked nervously before setting off to perform her first-ever helicopter-hover. Yet after a shaky start, her tenacious personality seemed to pull her through. “I’m good at being incredibly persistent and I don’t give up,” she told the space psychologist when asked to name her strengths.

Merritt also believes it is persistence (and hours of practice) that have allowed her to excel in two disciplines which are typically seen as requiring opposite traits: ballet and science. While studying for her PhD at Oxford, she has continued to perform as a professional dancer around the world. It's a stunning feat by any measure, and when I talk to her on the phone this weekend I ask whether it’s only possible because she’s some kind of genius? “No!” she exclaims, with a winning mix of genuine shock and self-deprecation. “I’m as far from a genius or a natural dancer as you can get - everyday I just feel like flailing mess! My thought process is that if I can do it anyone can do it, I promise you!”

But there is one thing that Merritt thinks might be holding back others from pursuing a mixed career like hers – and that’s the way the scientific world is run.

“They kind of self-select themselves,” she says of many science-professionals she’s met. "You get some people who are not incredibly understanding of those who perhaps approach [physics] in a different way, or who need a different type of schedule," she says. "They look down on people who are different from themselves, which is really difficult; I think that’s why women have difficulties, and I think that's why minorities have difficulties."

A report from the Royal Society on Diversity in Science would appear to support Merritt’s conclusions. It showed that women are significantly underrepresented in senior scientific roles, and that black and minority ethnic graduates are less likely to go on to work in science than their white peers.

So how can these trends be reversed? For Merritt the answer lies as much in schools as it does with targeted scholarships and support groups. Science education needs to be re-branded, she says, so that thinking creatively is actively encouraged from a young age; “It makes no sense to divide it up and say everyone either has an analytic mind or a creative mind." Simply leaning a set of very technical facts from a textbook drives her “bonkers” - but “when there’s passion behind something then anything is possible.”

If she could one thing about physics education, Merritt says she would switch things up so that the “exciting bits” get taught first - such as the latest thoughts on quantum computing or DNA repair. Then if students do choose to continue, they’ll know why they need to study the boring, rigorous parts too. “You’re like right, I need to learn about a harmonic oscillator because that’s how I’m going to understand this quantum computer.”

More cross-fertilisation between science and arts could also help the ballet world, she believes. “I can visualise my centre of mass, how gravity is working on different parts of my body, and how the torque effects my turns – and I think that’s a massive help,” Merritt says of her dancing.

But that’s far from all. When performing she often finds herself thinking about the more bizarre and “mind boggling” sides to physics: “Why is there all this dark matter in the Universe? What is that?! - when that’s going on in my mind, my legs become free because it means I’m not thinking about whether I look bad, or if something is right or not. I’m just inspired - and I want my dancing to be inspiring rather than self-critical all the time.”

Focusing on actions rather than self-image was definitely something Merritt's parents encouraged from a young age. Her dad’s work as an entertainment lawyer in LA meant he was particularly alert to the stereotypes that were being laid on young girls. And, as a result, Merritt and her sister grew up without TV or fashion magazines. Her dad was even initially worried about the mirrors in ballet classrooms

But self-criticism is also very hard to avoid when your antics are being broadcast to the nation on Sunday night TV.

“When you see yourself on screen you just feel incredibly vulnerable,” she says, “they are getting the raw emotions of how you’re reacting to stuff that you’ve never done before in your life!”. What Merritt’s episode one journey showed however, is that knowing yourself makes it easier to bouceback from nerves and self-doubt. And that perhaps more of us should be encouraged to believe that you don't have to choose between the stars on stage or the ones in space. 

The next episode of BBC2's Astronauts: have you got what it takes? will air on Sunday 27th August at 9pm.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.