There's been a lot of posturing this week over revelations regarding Ed Balls' recent interview with The Guardian:
"My starting point is, I am afraid, we are going to have keep all these cuts. There is a big squeeze happening on budgets across the piece. The squeeze on defence spending, for instance, is £15bn by 2015. We are going to have to start from that being the baseline. At this stage, we can make no commitments to reverse any of that, on spending or on tax. So I am being absolutely clear about that."
Wow. I think I'm in a state of shock. Let me give that another read..."I am afraid, we are going to have keep all these cuts"..."we can make no commitments to reverse any of that, on spending or on tax."
When I first read the interview I thought Labour had completely forgotten what their USP is, namely to represent the 'working class' and the centre-left. But after a bit of thought digestion, I came to realise the "nuanced position" Balls has established.
To explain this position we must revisit the 2010 general election. I remember it like it was yesterday...
The tale of Nick & Dave
Cleggmania had just exploded, Sue put Gordon Brown with that bigoted woman, and Dave wouldn't shut up about all the black people he'd met. Shortly after the election Nick married Dave, but Nick took Dave's last name. This mean't that as a proper Cameron, Nick had to accept that he couldn't have the crockery he'd seen in John Lewis. Instead, they had to have the crockery Dave wanted. I believe it was called 'Cut the Deficit in 5 Years' or 'Public Sector Elimination by Thatcher', available from the Conservative Party gift shop.
The justification Clegg gave for going along with Cameron's deficit reduction plan was that the books were worse than he thought, therefore justifying deeper and faster cuts than he campaigned for prior to the election. This was epitomised by the note left by Labour MP Liam Byrnes which read: "There's no money left."
The extent to which this is true is debatable, but on many other issues Clegg promised what he couldn't deliver, and it seems Balls doesn't want to make the same mistake. If Labour promise to reverse certain cuts and the economy is in a worse position in 2015, (assuming Labour win the next general election) then they will find themselves in a very difficult position with the electorate.
Labour's "nuanced position"
While it would be unfair to say Balls has endorsed the Coalition's cuts, it is equally unfair to say they totally oppose them. This puts Labour in an odd, 'nuanced' grey area. It doesn't help that Labour are still trying to figure out what they think about the world, the universe and everything, either.
It seems that Labour wants to have its cake and eat it too, in that they want to oppose government cuts while being seen to be competent when it comes to the economy. The problem Labour have is that of PR. They have utterly failed in convincing the electorate that the recession we faced was one of a global nature. They have been quite cleverly stuck with the bill at the end of the wedding, while Nick & Dave have come back from their honeymoon and are thinking of decorating.
Balls knows that Labour will never win a general election unless they somehow repair their economic reputation. So, Balls breaks out the play book, turns to Chapter Blair and reads about the run-up to the 1997 general election, when Gordon Brown accepted the then Tory government's spending plans for the next 2 years. Although this may get Labour into power, whether or not it will save the economy is another question.
Balls has positioned his party closer to that of the Conservatives (they were never that far apart anyway), making their role of opposition difficult and their position on the economy untenable. How can Labour effectively oppose the Tories when they cannot say what they would and would not cut? What cuts they will and wont reverse? The answer is they can't. Their opposition so far has been mediocre at best.
The fault in Balls' plan is this isn't 1997. Labour's leader is a lame duck, and the country is not yet sick of the Tories. This new position will alienate many on the left, but may appease some taken in by the belt tightening argument. Labour are not doing what they think is right, but what they think will get them elected.
In the end, it all comes down to PR. While Labour's position may be "nuanced" it is likely the electorate will see it as a u-turn. If the public see no difference in economic policy between Labour and the Tories, why elect Labour? It's not like they have put out many compelling social or environmental policies as of late.
With a poor leader, little economic opposition, and a party still figuring out what it does and doesn't want, what good are they?