Ed Balls speaks at the Labour conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

0800 7318496