Ed Balls speaks at the Labour conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Balls launches new assault on Osborne's "extreme" cuts

The shadow chancellor will unveil a full analysis of how the Tories' plans would hit public services. 

George Osborne's last Autumn Statement gifted Labour a new attack line after the OBR calculated that the Chancellor's plans would mean public spending falling to its lowest level as a share of GDP since the 1930s (35.2 per cent). Today, nine days ahead of Osborne's pre-election Budget, Ed Balls will launch a new assault on his opponent. In a speech at the RSA, the shadow chancellor will unveil a full analysis of what spending reductions of this size would mean for public services. 

David Cameron has frequently sought to give the impression that most of the cuts have already been made. But as Balls will say in his speech, the Tories' plans mean "spending cuts larger in the next four years than in the last five years. We are not even halfway through the cuts the Tories are planning. Spending cuts which are larger than any time in post-war history -  a bigger fall in spending as a share of GDP in any four year period since demobilisation at the end of the Second World War. Spending cuts which are larger than any other advanced economy in the world. More extreme than in this Parliament, the most extreme in post-war history and the most extreme internationally."

Labour's number crunchers have found that Osborne's cuts would mean the equivalent to over a third of the older people in social care losing their entitlement. "This would mean eligibility to care services further restricted, meaning hundreds of thousands of vulnerable older people missing out. It would mean even more elderly people trapped in expensive hospital beds when they don’t need to be. And it would mean even more elderly people turning to A&E because they are unable to access the care and support they need." 

Balls will also warn that "at a time when the terror threat is increasing and child protection under great pressure", the Tories' plans would result in dramatic cuts to the Home Office budget: the equivalent of 29,900 police officers and 6,700 community support officers lost. The cumulative outcome would be to reduce the total number of police to below 100,000 - the smallest force since comparable records began. Balls will say: "It’s no wonder that the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said these cuts are ‘colossal’ and questioned whether they could be delivered without 'a fundamental reimagining of the role of the state'. These are extreme, risky and unprecedented cuts to policing and social care which many will see as totally undeliverable, even by this Chancellor." 

For Labour, the political challenge is attacking Osborne's austerity programme while remaining committed to cuts of its own. The Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru will all charge the party with following the Tories' agenda. But as I've noted before, there is a significant fiscal gap between Osborne's plans and Balls's. The IFS estimates that Labour's programme would require cuts of around £7bn, compared to £33bn under the Tories'. By promising to introduce new tax rises (a 50p rate, a mansion tax, a bankers' bonus tax, a steeper bank levy), to leave room to borrow to invest and to only eliminate the current account deficit (rejecting the Tories' target of an absolute surplus), Balls has avoided the need for reductions on the scale proposed by Osborne. 

He will say: "While the Tories have extreme and risky plans – an ideological second-term Conservative project to shrink the state which go far beyond the necessary task of deficit reduction. And while some other parties say we do not need to get the deficit down. Labour has a better, different, fairer and more balanced plan which means we are the centre-ground party in British politics today. 

"We will cut the deficit every year and balance the books – with a surplus on the current budget and national debt as a share of GDP falling, as soon as possible in the next Parliament. And unlike the Tories we will make no unfunded commitments.

"There will need to be sensible spending cuts in non-protected areas. But we will also make fairer choices including reversing this government's £3 billion a year tax cut for the top one per cent of earners. And our plan will deliver the rising living standards and stronger growth needed to balance the books.

"The choice for the British people is now clear. A tough, but balanced and fair plan to deliver rising living standards and get the deficit down with Labour. Or an extreme and risky plan under the Tories for bigger spending cuts in the next five years than the last five years, which would cause huge damage to our vital public services."

By vowing to continue cutting even after the deficit has been eliminated, Osborne has enabled Labour to depict him as a dangerous ideologue. Balls's claim that his party now owns the "centre ground" was 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 question now is whether Osborne will do anything to neutralise Labour's attack when he rises to his feet at 12:30pm on Wednesday 18 March. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.