Balls pulls it off

He had the spirit and confidence of a man who knows he is winning the argument.

Ed Balls's speech to Labour conference was perhaps the most confident and memorable he has ever given. His delivery was faltering at times but his well-honed message was as clear as ever: George Osborne's plan is hurting but it's not working. With growth down and unemployment up, Labour's Keynesian rottweiler had plenty to get his teeth into.

As an alternative, Balls offered his own five-point plan for growth, the most eye-catching part of which was a one-year National Insurance holiday for all firms that take on extra workers. In the most effective line of his speech, he declared: "Call it Plan A plus, call it Plan B, call it Plan C, I don't care what they call it. Britain just needs a plan that works".

The section on Labour's "new fiscal rules" was less detailed than some expected but Balls set out his intention to offer "fiscal responsibility in the national interest", a message we haven't heard from his party for some time. The next Labour government will, he promised, "get our country's current budget back to balance" and set "national debt on a downward path." The timeline for doing so, however, remains unspecified (rightly, Balls refuses to set arbitrary targets).

Sounding a note of contrition, he also offered a fulsome list of Labour's "mistakes", namely the 75p pension rise, the abolition of the 10p tax rate, the failure to get "all employers to train", and the weak controls on migration from eastern Europe. But he rightly refused to accept that Labour was "profligate" in office, reminding the hall that "we went into the crisis with lower national debt than we inherited in 1997 and lower than America, France, Germany and Japan." (As a percentage of GDP, debt fell from from 42.5 per cent of GDP in 1997 to 36.5 per cent in 2007.)

Not all of what Balls said went down well with the party faithful. There was silence as he insisted that Labour could not promise to reverse particular Tory spending cuts or tax rises, and as he warned that pensions strikes this autumn would play into George Osborne's hands. Significantly, he added that under Labour "contributions and the retirement age would be rising too." His pledge to use any windfall from the bank sell-off to reduce the deficit, not to cut taxes, won applause, although some on the left would prefer a radical commitment to mutualise the banks and turn them into engines of growth.

But he finished strongly with a rhetorical assault on Osborne's boast that Britain is a "safe haven". It might be a safe haven for David Cameron and George Osborne and Boris Johnson and their friends, he said, but it is not a safe haven "for the 16,000 companies that have gone out of business in the last year". Unlike Vince Cable (who spoke of "grey skies" in his conference speech), he ended on a positive note, promising to show that "there can be a better future". And rightly so. History shows that progressive parties don't win elections unless they offer a hopeful vision of the future.

Balls had the energy and spirit of a man who knows that he is winning the argument. With even the IMF now warning that Osborne may have to slow the pace of the cuts if growth continues to disappoint, the consensus is slowly turning against austerity. As the economic data continues to worsen, Balls will win further converts to his approach.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”