Steve Richards: Balls can't risk too much information

Click to follow
The Independent Online

I read or hear persistently that we do not know enough about Labour's policies. The lofty observation is nonsense, partly because the next election is probably more than two years away. More to the point, we know quite a lot already.

For all their differences, Ed Miliband and Ed Balls share a common past. They were at the heart of the campaign that returned Labour to power in 1997. Although Miliband has declared it is necessary to move on from the New Labour era, he and Balls are influenced by the last time Labour moved from opposition to power. For all senior political figures, opposition is a strange, intimidating foreign land. Miliband and Balls learnt the foreign language in their 20s and find that they need to speak it again in their 40s. They turn to memories of their previous visit for guidance.

From the public declarations of Miliband and Balls, Labour's position in relation to tax and spend is clear. They will try to close the issue off, as Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did in 1997. They are right to do so. There is no point trying to have a grown-up pre-election debate in the UK about tax and spend. It is impossible. So they have been emphatic. Both say they work on the assumption there will be no money to spend in 2015. Both have taken a tough stance on public-sector pay and provoked predictably hostile reactions from union leaders.

In his speech yesterday, Balls deployed familiar devices from the mid-1990s. Part of the art of opposition is to make every sum appear to add up, and so he hit upon the auction of 4G licences to pay for a house-building programme, making it a little harder for Cameron and Osborne to portray the proposal as "reckless". I heard other echoes from the mid-1990s, including the clever appointment of an iconic figure from London 2012 to conduct an independent review into infrastructure needs "in order to secure a consensus" on the issue, once more making it harder for the Conservatives to oppose.

In his interview with The Independent last month, Balls indicated two areas where he might pledge to increase spending: the NHS and training. He is looking to raise the money through a popular tax increase, possibly a mansion tax that would impact on a tiny proportion of the electorate. Labour did the same in 1997 with its tax on the privatised utilities.

Apart from these two areas, the two Eds will at first stick closely to the spending plans they inherit while they conduct a spending review.

In his speech today, Miliband will tell the audience more about himself. Yet the personal is the easy bit. Policy-making in opposition is much more difficult and can easily come unstuck as Miliband discovered in his first policy review. In the end, policies and the ideas they represent are more important in opposition than the personality of the party's leader, which will take shape if he or she makes the right calls.