December 12, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith
The trouble with the speech Ed Miliband gave yesterday on how Labour would reduce the deficit is not that it was 3 months late, but that it was three years late. Miliband famously forgot to mention the size of the deficit (how much we are adding to the national debt every year) in his Conference speech in September. But whilst many attributed more meaning to that ‘Keynesian slip’ than it deserved, far more important has been how long it has taken for Miliband to admit that the deficit is a problem that needs to be tackled in the first place.
This comes at a time when quite frankly the Conservatives’ plans for cutting the deficit look to be in disarray. To offer, as David Cameron and George Osborne do, £7bn of unfunded income tax cuts in addition to another £1bn of stamp duty revenue cuts whilst saying that they have a credible plan for reducing the gap between tax revenue and government spending should be laughable. In addition to this the Tories are promising cuts to the size of the state that have been independently verified as being big enough to take the size of government spending as a percentage of GDP back to 1930s levels (before the welfare state and NHS existed). Finally, having promised they would cut the deficit completely by the end of this Parliament they are not in fact due to do so until 2018/2019. In any normal circumstances Labour would have a massive economic hole to drive through.
But these aren’t normal circumstances. Ed Miliband and Ed Balls spent the first three years of this Parliament overplaying their role as an opposition by choosing to oppose just about every cut the Coalition government made. In fact, for the first year of it, Balls was making speeches about how cuts shouldn’t have been needed at all. There was some economic validity in Balls’ criticisms, but given the Coalition had inherited an economy in recession and with a deficit of £168bn it was just too easy for the Conservatives in particular to paint Labour as ‘deficit-deniers’. We can discuss over and over again whether the size of the deficit was Labour’s fault, but poll after poll after poll suggests the public thinks that it is. Whoever caused the recession in 2008, arriving at it after so many years of growth without a budget surplus to use for a stimulus was not sensible long-term economic management.
So to have then spent as much time as they did opposing cuts, denying the deficit was a problem and not coming up with a credible plan for fixing the state of the economy, it is very late for Labour to be trying to do that now. However, that is not to say what Miliband said was wrong, not that it wasn’t a good speech – because it was. At the centre of it was a ‘pledge card’ headed by this – “We will build a strong economic foundation and balance the books. We will cut the deficit every year while securing the future of the NHS. And none of our manifesto commitments will require additional borrowing.” Although he wasn’t able to list specific cuts, because, as he pointed out, until you in government and can actually see the books you cannot commit to specific cuts, he was able to set out the dividing line between how Labour would cut the deficit and how the Tories would. He also mentioned many of the policies he had announced so far, including the mansion tax, taxes on bankers bonuses etc that show that the burden of the cuts would fall more on the broader shoulders. He also explained that cutting slower would help produce the growth needed to make cutting the deficit possible in a sustainable way.
As Robert Peston pointed out – “Labour believes that by cutting less in the short term, the economy would grow faster – and that would yield higher tax revenues that would finance a relatively bigger public sector. And debt as a proportion of GDP would be reduced by a swelling of the GDP denominator. The Tories are convinced that the momentum in the economy is sufficient to absorb more immediate and larger public sector cuts – and that the imperative is to cut debt sooner rather than later.” All this makes some sense – effectively painting the Conservatives’ strategy as a risk to the economy in the same way the Conservatives like to paint his strategy the same.
Yet he couldn’t resist taking ideological and rather childish pot-shots at the Conservatives, which we could do without. He talked of how the ‘only real 35% strategy’ (a reference to the many people who think Labour has retreated to the comfort of their core vote to carry them limping over the line to 35% of the vote which could be enough for a majority) is the Conservatives’ plan to shrink the state to 35% of GDP. He then said that this was an ideological plan, not because they ‘have to do it’, but because they ‘want to do it’ – “regardless of the consequences”. This last line is a shame, because it wasn’t necessary, and Miliband should be better than that. One third of the country is going to vote Conservative, and Miliband should be trying to attract some of those – painting them as heartless is quite counter-productive.