Why Labour can't and won't go on a "spending spree"

Balls has left himself with room to borrow to invest but the party's fiscal rules mean total spending will be falling for almost every year of the next parliament.

Was Ed Balls's latest commitment to fiscal responsibility just smoke and mirrors? That's the suggestion on the front of today's Times, which declares "Labour’s spending spree to cost £25bn". The paper reports that the party has "quietly drawn up spending plans that would allow it to borrow £25 billion more than the Tories after the next election, despite promising to match George Osborne’s pledge of clearing the deficit.

"A 'sleight of hand' by Ed Balls means he would be able to slow the pace of public cuts proposed by the Tories, opening up a further ideological divide between the two parties."

This refers to the fact that while pledging to eliminate the current budget deficit by the end of the next parliament, Labour has left itself with room to borrow for capital spending (unlike George Osborne, who has vowed to achieve an absolute budget surplus by 2020 at the latest). Judging by the Times's report, you might assume that Balls had hidden this fact. But the reverse is the case. Labour isn't matching the Conservatives' pledge to eliminate the total deficit and Balls was careful not to suggest otherwise. As he said in his speech at the Fabian Society conference last weekend, 

I am today announcing a binding fiscal commitment. The next Labour government will balance the books and deliver a surplus on the current budget [emphasis mine] 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 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.

There was no "sleight of hand". 

Most of the media didn't bother to distinguish between current (day-to-day spending on public services, e.g. teachers' salaries and hospital drugs) and capital spending (investment in assets such as housing and roads) but the difference was there for those paying attention. 

Labour's position remains that it will make a formal decision on whether to borrow for capital spending closer to the election when economic circumstances are clearer. 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."

So while there has been no deception from Balls, is he still planning a "spending spree" if he's back in the Treasury after May 2015? Again, the answer is no. As well as promising to eliminate the current budget surplus, Balls has also pledged to ensure "falling national debt" (as a proportion of GDP) in the next parliament. This second fiscal rule, which includes both current and capital expenditure, means that Labour won't be able to "spend like drunken sailors" regardless of what some on the left would wish. Total spending, the lion's share of which is current expenditure, will be falling for the majority of the next parliament. As the Times's own Daniel Finkelstein noted in his column yesterday, Labour is now committed to "a very difficult period of deficit reduction". Has the party left itself with room to spend more than the Tories? Absolutely. But there will be nothing resembling a "spending spree".

Of course, were there to be another financial crisis or a similar disaster, it's possible that Labour would abandon one or both of its fiscal rules (as Gordon Brown did in 2008 and as George Osborne did in 2012) but that wouldn't be a spending spree but an acknowledgment of economic reality. 

That the Times has taken none of the above into account has infuriated the party this morning. Labour has long been angered by what it views as the paper's increasingly partisan coverage under new editor John Witherow (a front page last year declaring "Labour engulfed by Co-op scandal" provoked particular ire) and today's splash will only worsen relations. 

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

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The DUP scored £1bn for just ten votes – so why be optimistic about our EU deal?

By March 2019, we’re supposed to have renegotiated 40 years of laws and treaties with 27 ­countries.

If Theresa May’s government negotiates with the European Union as well as it negotiated with the Democratic Unionist Party, it’s time to cross your fingers and desperately hope you have a secret ­Italian grandfather. After all, you’ll be wanting another passport when all this is over.

The Northern Irish party has played an absolute blinder, securing not only £1bn in extra funding for the region, but ensuring that the cash is handed over even if the power-sharing agreement or its Westminster confidence-and-supply arrangement fails.

At one point during the negotiations, the DUP turned their phones off for 36 hours. (Who in Westminster knew it was physically possible for a human being to do this?) Soon after, needling briefings emerged in the media that they were also talking to Labour and the Lib Dems. In the end, they’ve secured a deal where they support the government and get the Short money available only to opposition parties. I’m surprised Arlene Foster didn’t ask for a few of the nicer chairs in Downing Street on her way out.

How did this happen? When I talked to Sam McBride of the Belfast News Letter for a BBC radio programme days before the pact was announced, he pointed out that the DUP are far more used to this kind of rough and tumble than the Conservatives. Northern Irish politics is defined by deal-making, and the DUP need no reminder of what can happen to minnows in a multiparty system if they don’t convince their voters of their effectiveness.

On 8 June, the DUP and Sinn Fein squeezed out Northern Ireland’s smaller parties, such as the SDLP and the Alliance, from the region’s Westminster seats. (McBride also speculated on the possibility of trouble ahead for Sinn Fein, which ran its campaign on the premise that “abstentionism works”. What happens if an unpopular Commons vote passes that could have been defeated by its seven MPs?)

The DUP’s involvement in passing government bills, and the price the party has extracted for doing so, are truly transformative to British politics – not least for the public discussion about austerity. That turns out to be, as we suspected all along, a political rather than an economic choice. As such, it becomes much harder to defend.

Even worse for the government, southern Europe is no longer a basket case it can point to when it wants to scare us away from borrowing more. The structural problems of the eurozone haven’t gone away, but they have receded to the point where domestic voters won’t see them as a cautionary tale.

It is notable that the Conservatives barely bothered to defend their economic record during the election campaign, preferring to focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s spending plans. In doing so, they forgot that many of those who voted Leave last year – and who were confidently expected to “come home” to the Conservatives – did so because they wanted £350m a week for the NHS. The Tories dropped the Cameron-era argument of a “long-term economic plan” that necessitated short-term sacrifices. They assumed that austerity was the New Normal.

However, the £1bn the government has just found down the back of the sofa debunks that, and makes Conservative spending decisions for the rest of the parliament fraught. With such a slim majority, even a small backbench rebellion – certainly no bigger than the one that was brewing over tax-credit cuts until George Osborne relen­ted – could derail the Budget.

One of the worst points of Theresa May’s election campaign was on the BBC ­Question Time special, when she struggled to tell a nurse why her pay had risen so little since 2009. “There isn’t a magic money tree that we can shake that suddenly provides for everything that people want,” the Prime Minister admonished. Except, of course, there is a magic money tree, and May has just given it a damn good shake and scrumped all the cash-apples that fell from it.

That short-term gain will store up long-term pain, if the opposition parties are canny enough to exploit it. In the 2015 election, the claim that the SNP would demand bungs from Ed Miliband to prop up his government was a powerful argument to voters in England and Wales that they should vote Conservative. Why should their hospitals and schools be left to moulder while the streets of Paisley were paved in gold?

The attack also worked because it was a proxy for concerns about Miliband’s weakness as a leader. Well, it’s hard to think of a prime minister in a weaker position than May is right now. The next election campaign will make brutal use of this.

Northern Ireland might deserve a greater wodge of redistribution than the Barnett formula already delivers – it has lower life expectancy, wages and productivity than the British average – but the squalid way the money has been delivered will haunt the Tories. It also endangers one of the Conservatives’ crucial offers to their base: that they are the custodians of “sound money” and “living within our means”.

Labour, however, has not yet quite calibrated its response to the DUP’s new-found influence. Its early attacks focused on the party’s social conservatism, pointing out that it is resolutely anti-abortion and has repeatedly blocked the extension of equal marriage through “petitions of concern” at Stormont.

This tub-thumping might have fired up Labour’s socially progressive supporters in the rest of the UK, but it alienated some in Northern Ireland who resent their politicians being seen as fundamentalist yokels. (Only they get to call the DUP that: not Londoners who, until three weeks ago, thought Arlene Foster was the judge who got sacked from Strictly Come Dancing.)

And remember: all this was to get just ten MPs onside. By March 2019, we’re supposed to have renegotiated 40 years of legislation and treaties with 27 other European ­countries. Ha. Hahaha. Hahaha.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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