Osborne at the royal mint. Photo: Matthew Horwood - WPA Pool/Getty Images
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What the budget will not reveal: Osborne has been more pragmatic than his image suggests

This looks set to be a minimalist budget - but not all is as it seems, and opposition Ed Balls would do well to veer away from it sooner rather than later.

Most voters are oblivious to the day-to-day combat at Westminster; their preferences are shaped by longer-term trends. The Budget is an exception. In this parliament, George Osborne’s 2012 “omnishambles” Budget, which entrenched the impression of the Conservatives as the party of the rich, is the most salient example.

It initially appeared likely that this year’s Budget (on 18 March) would be a minimalist affair. The Liberal Democrats briefed that they would strike no significant deals with the Tories on account of their desire to distance themselves from their coalition partners in advance of the general election. Mr Osborne, it seemed, would be denied the chance to unleash any fiscal fireworks. But more recent briefings suggest there will at least be a few sparklers. The government is reported to be considering raising the personal income-tax allowance to nearly £11,000, rather than the scheduled £10,600, after lower-than-expected inflation (which has reduced the cost of debt interest payments) gifted the Chancellor a £5bn windfall.

A cut in this very visible tax would be politically adroit but more progressive options exist. A further increase in the personal allowance will not benefit the 4.6 million workers who earn too little to pay tax; the biggest winners would be households in the top half of the income distribution. A better course would be to raise the National Insurance threshold (now at £7,956) or to cut VAT, which hits the poorest hardest.

Having failed to meet his original deficit reduction targets (borrowing this year is forecast to exceed £80bn), Mr Osborne has scheduled several more years of austerity. As a result of his plan to achieve a £23bn surplus by 2019-20, while cutting taxes by £7.2bn and avoiding further tax rises, the UK faces even greater cuts than those imposed since 2010. As Ed Balls noted in a speech on 9 March, public spending as a share of GDP, based on current trends, would fall to its lowest since the 1930s, the army would be reduced to its smallest size since Cromwell and three departments – the Foreign Office, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Transport – would have no day-to-day budgets left at all. If this seems incredible, it is because it is. Rather than implementing his programme, Mr Osborne is likely to raise VAT again or to extend his deficit reduction timetable.

Yet the Chancellor, as Mr Balls says in his interview with George Eaton on page 34, has been more pragmatic than his axe-wielding image suggests. Rather than chasing his original targets when growth stalled, he allowed borrowing to rise by £219bn more than planned. This fiscal loosening partly explains the UK’s robust if much-delayed recovery. The trouble, Mr Balls says, is: “He’s learned the wrong lessons and he thinks now, at the beginning of the next parliament, you should go back to the plan at the beginning of the last one.” There is no economic need for Britain to run an absolute surplus in five years’ time. The most sensible course, as Labour and the Liberal Democrats propose, is to eliminate the current Budget deficit while leaving room to borrow to invest in housing, transport and other infrastructure projects.

Unlike some in his party, Mr Osborne is not a simple-minded libertarian. He recognises the necessity of active government to support growth, recently comparing himself to that champion of interventionism, Michael Heseltine. However, if he is truly intent on regenerating the Conservatives, he should change course now rather than after 7 May. 

It's just not cricket

The England cricket team will return from the World Cup defeated and humiliated. Having been thrashed by Australia, New Zealand and Sri Lanka, England were put out of their misery by plucky Bangladesh, a performance Mike Selvey at the Guardian described as among the worst he had seen in 30 years reporting on our summer game. English cricket is the author of its own misfortune. The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) is greedy and complacent. The relentless schedule to which it has committed the national team has wearied and bored the players. The hapless coach, Peter Moores, seems to speak entirely in management gobbledegook. The one-day team does not even have an English captain: Eoin Morgan is an Irishman, who understandably refuses to sing the national anthem and, less understandably, keeps getting out for nought. The one saving grace for the ECB is that the public does not seem much to care. Could it be that cricket in England is a dying game? 

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel's Next War

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.