Alistair Darling warns of return to 'Tory dark ages'

Click to follow

Chancellor Alistair Darling today warned of a return to the "Tory dark ages" if David Cameron wins the upcoming General Election.

Voters will be faced with a "big choice" between a dogma-driven Conservative Party which is "relishing the chance to swing the axe at the public services millions rely on" and Labour which will protect frontline services from cuts, he said.

In his keynote speech to Labour's annual conference in Brighton, the Chancellor issued a warning to bankers that there can be "no return to business as usual" after the recession, with legislation planned to end automatic bonuses and curb the reckless pursuit of short-term profits.

But just days after warning that Labour appeared to have no "fire in our bellies", Mr Darling directed his fire mostly at the Tories, accusing Mr Cameron and shadow chancellor George Osborne of getting every major decision wrong on the recession.

He evoked the memory of the Thatcher and Major administrations, which he said left "a legacy of disdain, underinvestment and shaming poverty", and warned that a return to Tory rule would again inflict damage on the fabric of the nation.

Mr Darling said that Labour could be "proud" of its handling of the economic crisis and boasted that countries around the world would not have moved towards recovery "without Gordon Brown's leadership".

It was "too early to say with total confidence" that the UK was coming out of recession. But the Chancellor stuck by his prediction in the April Budget that recovery would be under way by the turn of the year.

He restated Labour's acceptance that "spending will have to be tighter in the years ahead", repeating his pledge to bring down the £175 billion state deficit by half within four years. But he insisted that growth, not cuts, was "the best way of reducing debt".

And he said that Conservative plans for faster and deeper spending cuts would damage the economy and endanger the fragile recovery.

"If we followed the Tory route now, recovery would be put at risk, prospects for growth damaged, borrowing would in the long run be greater," said Mr Darling.

"We cannot and must not let that happen. And we cannot - must not - repeat their mistakes of the 1980s and 1990s when short-term job loss became long-term unemployment for a whole generation."

The Conservative approach "is wrong, is naive and downright dangerous", while Mr Osborne had contributed "little that is grown-up" to the debate on the economy, he said.

And he told delegates: "The Tories have been wrong on tackling the recession. They are wrong on how to ensure recovery. And they will make the wrong decisions on our public services.

"They are wrong because on every question, the Tory answer is to step back, to walk away, to leave people on their own.

"So that will be the choice in the next few months. Maturity and experience against the politics of the playground. Investment in the future against a return to the past.

Voters in the election expected in the spring will face "a choice between a Labour Government which believes passionately that front-line public services are vital to support everyone to meet their ambitions and a Tory party which has reverted to type and is relishing the chance to swing the axe at the public services millions rely on," he said.

Liberal Democrat economics spokesman Vince Cable said he found it extraordinary that measures to curb excessive bonuses were only being introduced a year after the height of the banking crisis.

"It shows a sense of urgency which is absolutely mind boggling," he told Labour activists at a conference fringe meeting.

Mr Darling did not give precise details of the new Business and Financial Services Bill to clamp down on banking excesses which will be included in November's Queen's Speech and pushed through Parliament before the election.

But he said: "Let me assure the country - and warn the banks - that there will no return to business as usual for them.

"So in the next few weeks we will introduce legislation to end the reckless culture that puts short-term profits over long-term success.

"It will mean an end to automatic bank bonuses year after year. It will mean an end to immediate pay-outs for top management.

"Any bonuses will have to be paid over years, so they can be clawed-back if not warranted by long-term performance.

"We won't allow greed and recklessness to ever again endanger the whole global economy and the lives of millions of people."

Mr Darling accepted that debt had risen as the Government launched an unprecedented fiscal stimulus package to shore up the banks and fight the effects of recession. But he rejected Tory claims that Britain was faring particularly badly, saying that debt had risen "not just here but around the world".

"Had we not borrowed, we would have made a very difficult situation far worse," he said.

"The recession would have turned into depression and debt would have been more, not less. And this increased debt would be spent not in supporting jobs and families now but on long-term welfare bills.

"It would have been irresponsible to walk away when the economic shock waves hit our country.

"It will be equally irresponsible, once recovery is secured, not to take tough action so we can live within our means."

Acknowledging that cuts are inevitable following the election, Mr Darling said: "In order to get borrowing down, spending will have to be tighter in the years ahead, against a background where public investment has tripled over the past decade."

But he added: "Tighter spending doesn't mean a return to the Tory dark ages. It does mean a determination to cut waste, cut costs and cut lower-priority budgets.

"This will require difficult decisions. I haven't shirked them in the past, I won't shirk them now.

"We must keep the public finances on a sustainable path. The long-term health of our economy depends on it.

"That is why we will introduce a new Fiscal Responsibility Act to require that the Government reduces the budget deficit year on year, ensuring that the national debt remains sustainable in the medium term.

"But we need to do that rationally, in a way that is right for the economy, not driven by dogma."