Ed Miliband speaks at Senate House on November 13, 2014 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Miliband confronts Labour's deficit problem and opens new dividing line on the state

Labour leader attacks the Conservatives' plan for "a dramatic shrinking of the state and public services" to 1930s levels. 

Ed Miliband's speech at this year's Labour conference is best remembered for his failure to mention the deficit. His amnesia served to magnify a bigger problem: that the party hasn't come close to regaining the economic credibility it lost during the crash.

Despite George Osborne's multiple failures (the deficit is forecast to be £91bn this year, £54bn higher than promised in 2010) the Tories' lead as the best custodians of the public finances has grown, rather than shrunk. Shadow cabinet ministers fear that Labour's inability to win back economic trust is obscuring Miliband's promise of a better tomorrow. As long as voters doubt the party's competence, they won't believe in its ability to raise stagnant living standards. While Labour has bound itself to fiscal rectitude by pledging to eliminate the current account deficit by the end of the next parliament and to reduce the national debt as share of GDP, many have long believed that this message will only gain credence when it is delivered prominently by the leader. 

Miliband's address tomorrow morning in London is aimed at answering these criticisms. Having failed to mention the deficit once in Manchester, he is now devoting a whole speech to the subject - the first time he has done so. He will say: "My speech today is about the deficit. Its place in our priorities, how a Labour government would deal with it, and how we would do so consistent with our values." Miliband will go on to declare that those who think "the deficit simply doesn’t matter to our mission and should not be our concern" are "wrong". He will warn that "unless there is a strategy for dealing with the deficit, it is working people who will end up paying the price of the economic instability that is created. It is also necessary for funding our public services because higher debt interest payments squeeze out money for those services and for investment in the long-term potential of our country. 

"There is no path to growth and prosperity for working people which does not tackle the deficit. What we need is a balanced approach which deals with the deficit - but does so sensibly."

His aim is to convince voters that Labour wll reduce the deficit but will do so in a different and better way than the Tories. Rather than relying on cuts alone, the party will also impose new tax rises on the wealthy and will stimulate growth and wages in order to raise flagging Treasury receipts. The party cites the slump in tax revenues owing to inadequate pay as a vindication of its economic analysis. A Labour strategist told me that reducing the deficit and solving the "cost-of-living crisis" were "not separate projects, but the same project".

The speech will be welcomed by the party's deficit hawks although some will question why such an intervention wasn't made earlier in the parliamentary cycle. Others on the left are likely to complain that by devoting an entire speech to the issue, Miliband is reinforcing George Osborne's frame of choice. 

To underline Labour's commitment to fiscal responsibility, Ed Balls has written to all shadow cabinet ministers warning those responsible for unprotected areas (everything excluding the NHS and international development) that "you should be planning on the basis that your departmental budgets will be cut not only in 2015/16, but each year until we have achieved our promise to balance the books": his grimmest statement yet of the lean times ahead for Whitehall. Balls promises, however, that "We will set out for our manifesto other priority areas of spending which will be protected" (schools are one likely candidate). 

Alive to the danger of appearing to embrace Conservative-style austerity, as Labour sheds left-wing voters to the Greens and the SNP, Miliband will also carve a new dividing line with Osborne. Following the OBR's forecast that public spending will fall to just 35.2 per cent of GDP by 2019-20, the lowest level since the 1930s, he will rule out ever making cuts of this scale. 

In an ironic allusion to his alleged minimalist electoral strategy, he will declare: "There is only one 35 per cent strategy in British politics today: the Tory plan for cutting back the state and spending on services to little more than a third of national income." The Tories' plan to continue cutting even once the deficit has been eliminated has given Labour the opening it needs to accuse them of an ideological drive to shrink the state. One strategist told me that the Conservatives were now in "a dangerous place". 

Miliband will say: "They have finally been exposed by the Autumn Statement for what they really are: not modern compassionate Conservatives at all - but extreme and ideological, committed to a dramatic shrinking of the state and public services, no matter what the consequences."

"They are doing it, not because they have to do it, but because they want to. That is not our programme, that will never be our programme, and I do not believe it is the programme the British people want.

"This is a recipe for public services that will disintegrate and for a permanent cost of living crisis because we won’t be investing in the skills and education people need for good quality jobs, and indeed for sufficient tax revenues. And we know what the result will be: the Tories might be able to deliver the cuts they have promised, but they won’t be able to cut the deficit as they promised."

Miliband will outline the "five principles" that will guide Labour's alternative approach to the deficit: "These are the principles of deficit reduction a Labour government will follow: balancing the current budget, not destroying productive investment; an economic strategy to bring the deficit down, not drive it up; sensible reductions in spending, not slash and burn of our public services; the wealthiest bearing the biggest burden, not everyday people; and fully funded commitments, without additional borrowing, not unfunded tax cuts that put our NHS at risk."

The Tories have long sought to create a narrative of risk around a future Labour government by warning that the opposition would "crash the car again". By warning of the consequences for public services of another Conservative-led government, Miliband aims to construct a centre-left equivalent. The defining passage of his speech tomorrow is his declaration that "We will deal with the deficit but we will never return to the 1930s. We won’t take risks with our public finances. And we won’t take risks either with our public services, our National Health Service." 

The Conservatives' aggressive response to the BBC's coverage of the Autumn Statement revealed the extent to which they fear that the cuts to come could jeopardise their election chances. Osborne and other senior Tories partly blame their failure to win a majority on his "age of austerity" conference speech in 2009, which triggered a poll slump from which they never recovered. Labour was able to win back support as it warned of cuts to tax credits, reductions in child benefit, Sure Start closures and a rise in VAT (all denied by the Tories during the campaign only to be introduced immediately afterwards). By warning of the threat now posed to the NHS and to schools by a return to levels of public spending that existed before the creation of the welfare state in 1945, Miliband is attempting to do the same. It is a powerful frame that he is likely to return to repeatedly before the election (although some will attack it as a repeat of the "good cuts vs. bad cuts" strategy that Gordon Brown felt trapped by in 2010). 

A Labour aide promised that there would be new announcements in the speech tomorrow. Whether they are on protecting public services or on cutting deficit will reveal much about the message that Miliband wants to take priority. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.