It’s the moment the Labour party has been trying to avoid: addressing the deficit. And its reluctance is little wonder considering it is jumped upon by the right every time it suggests a tax rise or a whiff of an unfunded spending commitment, and by the left when it discusses continuing the government’s austerity project.
However, today is the day that Ed Miliband will address the deficit problem and explain how his party would tackle it if it is voted into government next year. George analyses what Miliband is expected to say today about cutting the deficit, and reports that there will be new announcements in the speech. However, whether these will include protecting public services or plans for cuts is another story.
It is clear Labour is holding something back, and not just until Miliband speaks today. The shadow chancellor Ed Balls, interviewed on the BBC’s Today programme this morning, would not answer the question about when he would like to balance the books by, insisting that such answers are impossible to give until tax revenues are in and give a better idea of how much money there is (George Osborne was disappointed on tax receipts when delivering his Autumn Statement last week).
This shows Labour’s reluctance to make the same mistake as Osborne and set itself up for missing a target, and therefore being vulnerable to a hammering from its political opponents. While it is wise to learn from the Chancellor’s missed target, the Labour party does sound like it is prevaricating over the subject that it has so vocally decided to face head-on: balancing the books. There is the argument that it is even unnecessary for the party to devote a whole speech to this subject at all, considering the deficit is the way in which the Conservatives frame the economic debate, and are still more trusted by the public with fixing it.
However, in a harsher and more specific message, Balls also reiterated on Today his warning to shadow cabinet colleagues (aside from the shadow health and international development secretaries) that their departments, if they make it to government, will have to cut every single year until the deficit has been eliminated:
You should be planning on the basis that your departmental budgets will be cut not only in 2015/16, but each year until we have achieved our promise to balance the books.
Labour’s biggest challenge will be to tell us what those cuts would include, and how deep they would be. As Labour has taken the risky decision to directly tackle the deficit question, it’s time for Balls to sharpen the rather vague axe he is wielding.