Ed Balls’ conference speech last week was notable for the way it committed Labour to pursuing the same austerity policies that have led to such a weak recovery over the last 4 years. The key passage was this one:
“We know there would have been tough decisions on tax, spending and pay restraint in this parliament whoever was in government.
But three years of lost growth at the start of this parliament means we will have to deal with a deficit of £75 billion – not the balanced budget George Osborne promised by 2015.
And that will make the task of governing hugely difficult.
And this goes to the heart of the political challenge we face.
People know we are the party of jobs, living standards and fairness for working people.
But they also need to know that we will balance the books and make the sums add up and that we won’t duck the difficult decisions we will face if they return us to government.
Working people have had to balance their own books.
And they are clear that the government needs to balance its books too.
So Labour will balance the books in the next parliament.
These will be our tough fiscal rules. We will get the current budget into surplus and the national debt falling as soon as possible in the next parliament.
Tough fiscal rules that our National Policy Forum endorsed in July, demonstrating that, however difficult, our party can unite in tough times to agree a radical, credible and fully costed programme for government.
And we will legislate for these tough fiscal rules in the first year after the election and they will be independently monitored by the Office for Budget Responsibility.
So in our manifesto there will be no proposals for any new spending paid for by additional borrowing.
No spending commitments without saying where the money is coming from.
Because we will not make promises we cannot keep and cannot afford.”
Reading this, you have to question whether Ed Balls is an idiot or a liar. In the passage above, there’s a hint it’s the latter. The section I’ve bolded uses quite weaselly language which avoids saying what he thinks, just that other people think a government’s budget is like a household budget. To me this is an admission that he knows perfectly well what he is saying is rubbish, but he believes that’s what other people want to hear, so he’s prepared to pretend he believes it too. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but as further proof, here’s a passage from a speech Balls gave in August 2010, his famous Bloomberg speech:
“Interviewers look aghast when I tell them that cutting public spending this financial year and pre-announcing a rise in VAT is economically foolish, when growth and consumer confidence is so fragile. ‘But what would you cut instead?’ they demand.
So strong and broad is this consensus that a special name has been given to those who take a different view – ‘deficit-deniers’ – and some in the Labour Party believe our very credibility as a party depends on hitching ourselves to the consensus view.
I am not one of them.
The history of British policymaking in the last hundred years has taught us that on all the other occasions when major economic misjudgements were made, broad-based political, media, financial and popular opinion was in favour of the decision at the time, and the dissenting voices of economists were silenced or ignored.
In 1925, Chancellor Winston Churchill decided to return sterling to the ‘gold standard’ on the grounds that there was no credible alternative which the financial markets would support and that a return to gold would boost confidence and private investment.
He was supported by the broad mass of economic opinion – including the Governor of the Bank of England, Montagu Norman and the leadership of the Labour Party. Only John Maynard Keynes stood out against the consensus at the fateful 11 Downing Street dinner where Churchill made the decision.
But Keynes famously lost the argument and, as he correctly predicted in The Economic Consequences of Mr Churchill, the result was deflation, rising unemployment, the general strike and then Conservative election defeat.
In 1931, two years after the biggest financial crisis of the last century, Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald said spending cuts were unavoidable to slash the deficit, ease pressure on sterling and satisfy the markets, in the hope of triggering a private sector led recovery.
He wrote: “We are compelled to devise special measures to meet the temporary difficulties. The critics will have to face facts and deal honestly with the interests of the country.”
Labour MPs rebelled, and MacDonald formed a national coalition government with the Conservatives to drive the plan through with broad media support.
Again, Keynes stood outside this consensus, writing that: “Every person … who hates social progress and loves deflation … feels that his hour has come and triumphantly announces how, by refraining from every form of economic activity, we can all become prosperous again.”
And the result of MacDonald’s plan?
The promised private sector recovery failed to materialise. Unemployment soared. Debt rose. Britain faced years of low growth. The parallels with today’s situation are striking.
To me this suggests he knows damn well how damaging austerity has been in the distant and more recent past. Has he now changed his mind? In his 2010 speech, he then goes on to say:
“So the first lesson I draw from history is to be wary of any British economic policy-maker or media commentator who tells you that there is no alternative or that something has to be done because the markets demand it.
Adopting the consensus view may be the easy and safe thing to do, but it does not make you right and, in the long-term, it does not make you credible.
We must never be afraid to stand outside the consensus – and challenge the view of the Chancellor, the Treasury, even the Bank of England Governor – if we believe them to be wrong.
But there is a second lesson too – which is also very pertinent at the present time for the Labour opposition and those of us who aspire to be the next Labour leader: it’s not enough to be right if you don’t win the argument.”
That’s a sentiment to applaud, but one which 2014 Ed Balls has completely abandoned. It seems he thinks he has lost the argument and far from standing outside the consensus, he’s now lining up alongside George Osborne to see who can outbid each other on the consensus (but bogus) concept of fiscal responsibility. He has totally given up on trying to win the argument and is now quite prepared to pretend the earth is flat, believing that enough voters actually do think the earth is flat to benefit him politically. It’s an incredibly cowardly and cynical point of view, and one that takes us all for fools. Whether he is right about the electorate being fools remains to be seen.