Balls's surplus pledge leaves Labour with room to borrow to invest

Unlike Osborne's budget surplus pledge, Balls's only applies to current spending, leaving open the option of borrowing to fund infrastructure.

In his speech tomorrow at the Fabian Society conference, Ed Balls will commit Labour to achieving a current budget surplus in the next parliament. He will say:

I am today announcing a binding fiscal commitment. The next Labour government will balance the books and deliver a surplus on the current budget and falling national debt in the next Parliament. So my message to my party and the country is this: where this government has failed, we will finish the job.

We will abolish the discredited idea of rolling five year targets and legislate for our tough fiscal rules within 12 months of the general election. Tough fiscal rules which will be independently audited by the Office for Budget Responsibility.

We will get the current budget into surplus as soon as possible in the next Parliament. How fast we can go will depend on the state of the economy and public finances we inherit.

At first sight, this might appear identical to the recent pledge by George Osborne to run a surplus by the end of the next parliament (in 2018-19 at present). But there is one crucial difference. While Osborne's promise applies to total government spending, Balls's only applies to current spending (day-to-day spending on public services, for instance teachers' salaries and hospital drugs). This leaves open the option of Labour borrowing to fund additional capital spending (investment in assets such as housing and roads). A Balls source told me tonight that the party would wait until closer to the election, when economic circumstances are clearer, before deciding whether to do so.

As Balls said in my recent interview with him, "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."

In adopting this stance, Balls has revived the "golden rule" favoured by his mentor Gordon Brown, which stated that "over the economic cycle the government will borrow only to invest and that current spending will be met from taxation" (or, in these austere times, from cuts elsewhere. The big question for Labour is what balance the party will adopt betwen tax rises and cuts).

This is undoubtedly the right policy decision but expect the Tories to respond by declaring that it destroys Labour's ostensible commitment to fiscal responsibility by creating the possibility of "more borrowing". Labour sources are keen to point out that the accompanying pledge to reduce the national debt as a share of GDP means that the party won't be able to ramp up capital spending to unsustainable levels but the onus will be on it to make the case for investment if it chooses to borrow. Polls show that a majority of voters are in favour of borrowing more to fund spending in areas such as housing but, for fear of being portrayed as profligate, Labour has yet to win this argument with the Tories.

While it's Balls's surplus pledge that will dominate discussion tonight, I'm told that the speech will not be solely focused on the deficit and will include more on the reshaped economy promised by Ed Miliband in his speech last week; there will be one new unbriefed announcement.

P.S. If you're going along to the Fabian conference, I'll be speaking at 1:45pm on "who will win in 2015?"

Ed Balls speaks at the Labour conference in Brighton last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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