Ed Balls at the Labour conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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We're only cutting spending to 1964 levels - Balls mocks the Tories' new defence

Shadow chancellor says the Conservatives have blundered by admitting day-to-day spending will be reduced to its lowest level for more than 50 years. 

The biggest of the Labour foxes that George Osborne sought to shoot in his Budget was the line that he's taking public spending "back to the 1930s". After last year's Autumn Statement exposed him to this attack (with the state forecast to shrink to just 35.2 per cent of GDP in 2019-20), the Chancellor announced that expenditure would now stand at 36 per cent: merely the lowest level since 1999-2000. As I noted earlier, this was before any of Labour's major spending increases to health, education and other areas, but it's a more comfortable comparison for the Chancellor than The Road To Wigan Pier

But at his usual post-Budget briefing for lobby journalists, Ed Balls (who I recently profiled) highlighted an OBR table which he said showed "spending on day-to-day public services by 2018 falls to its lowest share of GDP since 1938". Midway through Balls's take, the Tory Treasury Twitter account riposted that spending actually falls to its lowest level since 1964

Labour have since pointed out that the Tories have "clearly misread the OBR’s print. The OBR were referring to the 2019 level when making the claim on 1964." 

The relevant passage in the OBR document states

Relative to the size of the economy, nominal government consumption is forecast to fall from 19.7 per cent of GDP in 2014 to 16.1 per cent of GDP by 2019. This is less of a fall than we forecast in December, but would still leave government consumption as a share of GDP equal to its level in 1964 and would be the joint lowest level in consistent National Accounts data going back to 1948. On a quarterly basis, government consumption falls to 15.9 per cent of GDP at the end of 2018. This is marginally above its previous low of 15.8 per cent, again in 1964.

Alerted to the Tories' ripsote by a journalist, Balls immediately spotted a chance to open a new line of attack. "Is that a boast?" he asked incredulously. "What was the David Cameron thing about too many tweets make a .... too many tweets make a Treasury special adviser would be the way I would put it", he quipped, before clarifying (with his past job in mind): "A Tory Treasury special adviser". 

He concluded: "If I was George Osborne I would have said: 'Don't press send'". A Labour aide later told me: "If the Tories want a row about whether this is the lowest level of day-to-day spending on public services for 50 years or 80 years, it’s fine by us." 

And Balls has another new line to deploy: that there is (in the words of the OBR) "a sharp acceleration" in the pace of spending cuts after 2015-16.  As chart 1.3 of the OBR document makes clear, the planned fiscal tightening dwarfs anything seen in this parliament.

For Cameron and Osborne, who have sought to give the impression that most of the pain is over, it is an uncomfortable truth. Expect Balls to raise it repeatedly between now and election day. "I have to say, I thought George Osborne would try and find ways to change things and he's actually left it all the same," he told journalists. "It was extreme yesterday, it's extreme today and it will be extreme tomorrow."

P.S. Here are Labour's calculations, based on data from the House of Commons library, in full. As they show, spending in 2018 falls to 16.068 per cent of GDP, lower than the 16.073 per cent seen in 1964. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The UK must reflect on its own role in stoking tension over North Korea

World powers should follow the conciliatory approach of South Korea, not its tempestuous neighbour. 

South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in has done something which took enormous bravery. As US and North Korean leaders rattle their respective nuclear sabres at one another, Jae-in called for negotiations and a peaceful resolution, rejecting the kind of nationalist and populist response preferred by Trump and Kim Jong-un.

In making this call, Jae-in has chosen the path of most resistance. It is always much easier to call for one party in a conflict to do X or Y than to sit round a table and thrash through the issues at hand. So far the British response has sided largely with the former approach: Theresa May has called on China to clean up the mess while the foreign secretary Boris Johnson has slammed North Korea as “reckless”.

China undoubtedly has a crucial role to play in any solution to the North and South Korean conflict, and addressing the mounting tensions between Pyongyang and Washington but China cannot do it alone. And whilst North Korea’s actions throughout this crisis have indeed been reckless and hugely provocative, the fact that the US has flown nuclear capable bombers close to the North Korean border must also be condemned. We should also acknowledge and reflect on the UK’s own role in stoking the fires of tension: last year the British government sent four Typhoon fighter jets to take part in joint military exercises in the East and South China seas with Japan. On the scale of provocation, that has to rate pretty highly too.

Without being prepared to roll up our sleeves and get involved in complex multilateral negotiations there will never be an end to these international crises. No longer can the US, Britain, France, and Russia attempt to play world police, carving up nations and creating deals behind closed doors as they please. That might have worked in the Cold War era but it’s anachronistic and ineffective now. Any 21st century foreign policy has to take account of all the actors and interests involved.

Our first priority must be to defuse tension. I urge PM May to pledge that she will not send British armed forces to the region, a move that will only inflame relations. We also need to see her use her influence to press both Trump and Jong-un to stop throwing insults at one another across the Pacific Ocean, heightening tensions on both sides.

For this to happen they will both need to see that serious action - as opposed to just words - is being taken by the international community to reach a peaceful solution. Britain can play a major role in achieving this. As a member of the UN Security Council, it can use its position to push for the recommencing of the six party nuclear disarmament talks involving North and South Korea, the US, China, Russia, and Japan. We must also show moral and practical leadership by signing up to and working to enforce the new UN ban on nuclear weapons, ratified on 7 July this year and voted for by 122 nations, and that has to involve putting our own house in order by committing to the decommissioning of Trident whilst making plans now for a post-Trident defence policy. It’s impossible to argue for world peace sat on top of a pile of nuclear weapons. And we need to talk to activists in North and South Korea and the US who are trying to find a peaceful solution to the current conflict and work with them to achieve that goal.

Just as those who lived through the second half of the 20th century grew accustomed to the threat of a nuclear war between the US and Russia, so those of us living in the 21st know that a nuclear strike from the US, North Korea, Iran, or Russia can never be ruled out. If we want to move away from these cyclical crises we have to think and act differently. President Jae-in’s leadership needs to be now be followed by others in the international community. Failure to do so will leave us trapped, subject to repeating crises that leave us vulnerable to all-out nuclear war: a future that is possible and frightening in equal measure.

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.