George Osborne and Ed Balls attend the State Opening of Parliament on May 8, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why Balls is so confident about attacking Osborne's cuts

The shadow chancellor remembers that it was fear of "Tory cuts" that handed Labour victory in 2001 and 2005, and denied the Conservatives a majority in 2010. 

On the day of last year's Autumn Statement, as George Osborne's chief of staff Rupert Harrison briefed journalists on its contents, a nearby Labour strategist texted me highlighting a line in the new OBR document: "Check out para 1.8 (page 6) of the main document. On projections of the share of GDP consumed by govt. Alarming...". This apparently obscure reference went on to provide the basis for an entire new line of attack by Labour. The relevant section read: "Total public spending is now projected to fall to 35.2 per cent of GDP in 2019-20, taking it below the previous post-war lows reached in 1957-58 and 1999-00 to what would be probably be its lowest level in 80 years." It was this finding that allowed Labour to warn that George Osborne would cut spending to its lowest level since the 1930s - before the creation of the NHS and comprehensive education. 

To mark the start of this election year, Ed Balls takes up the charge in today's Guardian, declaring that "There are moments in politics when, amid the fog of accusation and rebuttal, things suddenly become crystal clear. And it’s now clear that last month’s autumn statement was another of those rare defining moments – the day Chancellor George Osborne ceded the political centre ground to Labour". 

He adds: "In the runup to the autumn statement we all knew the ongoing squeeze on living standards was leading to a huge shortfall in tax revenues, throwing deficit reduction plans badly off track. What took everyone by surprise was that, in the face of forecasts that this loss of tax revenues would continue, Chancellor Osborne would choose to make up the shortfall with massively deeper spending cuts in the next parliament."

The confidence with which Balls attacks Osborne on territory previously considered unfavourable for Labour is striking. But a clue is provided in the second line of his piece: "I remember well the speech in summer 2000 when the shadow chancellor, Michael Portillo, set out Conservative plans to cut public spending to fund tax cuts – the moment we knew they had lost the 2001 election." As Gordon Brown's former chief economic adviser, Balls recalls better than most that it was fear of Conservative cuts that handed Labour victory in 2001 and 2005. 

It was awareness of this failure that led David Cameron and George Osborne to pledge in 2007 to match Labour's spending plans in the next parliament (thus denying Brown "baseline" advantage). But the financial crisis and the resultant surge in the deficit led the Tories to abandon their commitment, instead promising an "age of austerity". Their subsequent failure to win a majority is partly blamed by Osborne on voters' fear of the cuts to come. Labour was able to warn (accurately, as it proved) that child benefit, tax credits, Sure Start and the Education Maintenance Allowance were all under threat. 

By vowing to continue cutting even after the deficit has been eliminated, the Chancellor has provided the opposition with a new opportunity to depict him as a dangerous ideologue. Balls's claim that Labour now owns the "centre ground" is supported by a recent ComRes/Independent survey showing that 66 per cent do not believe that cuts should continue until the deficit has been eradicated with just 30 per cent in favour. Polls have also long shown backing for the party's pledge to impose higher taxes on the rich, such as a 50p rate of income tax and a mansion tax. 

The challenge for Labour is combining its attack on Conservative cuts with the acknowledgment that it, too, would reduce spending. As Balls writes: "Let me be clear, including to those who would wish it were not so: Labour will need to cut public spending in the next parliament to balance the books." Labour is left with precisely the dividing line that Brown wanted to avoid in 2010: good cuts against bad cuts. The SNP and the Greens are seeking to capitalise by attacking the party's embrace of austerity. But Labour believes that a commitment to cut spending (albeit by far less than the Conservatives) is necessary to counter the fear that it would allow the deficit to rise and "crash the car" again. Just as only Nixon could go to China, so the party hopes that only it will be trusted to "balance the books" in a fair way. 

Should fear of "Tory cuts" cost the Conservatives victory for a fourth time, Osborne will truly have been snared by his own creation

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Empty highs: why throwaway plastic goes hand in hand with bankrupt consumerism

We are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff.

A University of California study revealed this week that mankind has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with almost all of it ending up in landfill or the ocean. With the terrible effects of our decades-long addiction to throwaway packaging becoming increasingly apparent, it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

In April 2010, David Cameron set out his vision for Britain in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Keen to show that the Tories had turned away from the "I’m Alright Jack" individualism of the 1980s, Cameron sought to fashion a softer, more inclusive brand.

The good society, Cameron argued, embraced much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility. There was such a thing as society, and we’d all do well to talk to our neighbours a bit more. The Big Society, however, was roundly derided as a smokescreen for an aggressive tightening of the Government purse strings. And on the advice of his 2015 election fixer Lynton Crosby, Cameron later dropped it in favour of well-worn lines about economic security and jobs.   

While most would argue that the Big Society failed to amount to much, Cameron was at least right about one thing. We are happiest when we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how much the credit card companies try to convince us otherwise, mindless individualism won’t make us nearly as contented as we’re led to believe by big conglomerates.

By any measure, we are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff. As a nation, we have run up unsecured debts of more than £350bn, which works out at £13,000 per household. Fuelled by a toxic mix of readily available credit and interest rates at historic lows, we cripple ourselves financially to feel the empty high derived from acquiring yet more stuff.

Purchasing has become a leisure pursuit, ensuring the rate at which we acquire new stuff exceeds the rate at which we can find somewhere to put it. Burdened with ever increasing amounts of stuff, consumers are forced to outsource their storage. The UK didn’t have a self-storage industry 30 years ago, but now it is the largest in Europe.

With the personal debt mountain soaring, we’d all do well to realise that we will never have enough of something we don’t need.

The growth of rampant consumerism has coincided with an explosion in demand for single-use plastic. Like the superfluous possessions we acquire, throwaway plastic packaging helps satisfy our desire to get exactly what we want without having any thought for the long-term consequences. Plastic packaging is easy and convenient, but ultimately, will do us immense harm.

In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. The vast majority of our plastic waste either ends up in landfill or the ocean, and our failure to kick the plastic habit has put is in the ludicrous position where there is set to be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

There is also growing evidence that our penchant for endless throwaway plastic might be storing up serious health problems for our children later down the line. According to a University of Ghent study published earlier this year, British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. The report followed UN warnings last year that cancer-causing chemicals from plastic are becoming increasingly present in the food chain.

Something must give. Unsustainable as our reliance on fast credit to finance ever more stuff, our addiction to plastic packaging is storing up serious problems for future generations. The instant gratification society, high on the dopamine rush that fades so quickly after acquiring yet another material asset, is doomed unless decisive action is forthcoming.

So what is to be done? The 2016 US documentary Minimalism points to a smarter way forward. Minimalism follows the lives of ordinary people who have shunned the rat race in favour of a simpler life with less stuff and less stress. The most poignant bit of the film features ex-broker AJ Leon recounting how he chose to forgo the glamour and riches of Wall Street for a simpler life. After a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, Leon decided to jack it all in for a more fulfilling existence.

While challenging the view that to be a citizen is to be a consumer is easier said than done, there are small changes that we can enact today that will make a huge difference. We simply have no choice but to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that we can consume. If we don’t, we may soon have to contend with the ocean being home to more plastic than fish.

Like plastic, our bloated consumer culture is a disaster waiting to happen. There must be a better way.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a plastic free-aisle in supermarkets.

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