John Rentoul: This is new all right. It just isn't enough

Labour's acceptance yesterday of the Tory case for cuts is welcome, but Miliband and Balls still look like a losing team

Share
Related Topics

Ed Balls caught up yesterday with where the Labour Party should have been 16 months ago. It was an important moment. First, because saying, "We are going to have keep all these cuts" changes the balance of the debate. As with many important shifts in a party's position, Balls pretends that he has said nothing new, and that if we had been paying attention we would know that he said all this – not in so many words, obviously – in his party conference speech last year. But it is new all right, and necessary.

Second, it is also significant that Balls said it. At the end of a week in which the party leader gave what was billed as an important speech in which he said nothing at all that I can remember, it is clear where the intellectual force is coming from. Naturally, Balls and Ed Miliband agreed the new position. For all we know, it may have been Miliband's idea, but it doesn't look like it.

At first sight, it looks as if the Shadow Chancellor's acceptance of coalition spending cuts is setting the tempo – pushing the opposition argument ahead, taking the party and journalists by surprise. That is certainly something that a good opposition has to do, but this is so late, and so much an acceptance of the obvious, that it is not going to achieve much "cut through" – a phrase that Balls himself used recently of his leader's attack on Rupert Murdoch. (Balls said, witheringly, that he did not think his constituents in Morley and Outwood noticed it – although, he could have gone on to say, The Sun certainly did: it ran "Block Ed" as its front-page headline after Miliband paid tribute to the presenter of "Blackbusters" on Twitter.)

Keeping the coalition's cuts is a statement of the obvious because, by the time of the election, public spending will have been cut. It may be wise to keep half an eye on the possibility that the coalition will collapse and that Labour may need to fight an election earlier, but it was even wiser for Rachel Reeves, Balls's deputy, to say in an interview yesterday that "there is still a lot of work for Labour to do" before it is ready to fight an election. In 2015, Labour will have to set out its plans for what happens next – it may promise to reverse one or two cuts, but mostly it will be starting again from a new square one. So the effect of Balls's change is that it should help to shift the party's default setting. Does Labour go on saying, as it has done for the past 16 months: "Oh, no, we wouldn't do that"? Or does it look ahead and focus on what Labour would do with the finances that it would inherit?

There are problems, however, both with accepting the cuts so late and with putting Balls forward to do it. Because Labour has spent the past 16 months appearing to oppose each and every cut, it is harder to convince floating voters that it has converted to the cause of fiscal responsibility. I know some members of the Shadow Cabinet have tried, and Jim Murphy, the Defence spokesman, may have helped force yesterday's shift with his plans for £5bn of cuts in defence spending earlier this month.

However, the leader or Shadow Chancellor has to say something like this, and often, for it to have any impact. And it makes it harder if the person trying to persuade the floating voter is Balls, the Shadow Cabinet member who is most closely identified with Gordon Brown's denialism. Brown wouldn't use the cuts word and denied that it was a mistake to go on borrowing money before the financial crash.

It will not matter much at the next election that Labour was right to argue for cutting spending less far and less fast. Depending on what happens to the eurozone over the next three years, there may be a case then for more borrowing to provide a Keynesian stimulus in Britain, but we cannot know that yet. In the meantime, what Labour needs to do is to show that it can be trusted with the public finances, and to make some tough choices that show that its values are different from and better than the Government's.

Yet when Balls was asked yesterday what cuts Labour would make that the Government would not – which is the implication of accepting the cuts overall – the examples he came up with were not paying to reorganise the NHS and cutting police budgets. The first is irrelevant, on his own terms: the NHS will have been reorganised by the next election; it may look like a management awayday gone horribly wrong, but it will be the mess that Labour will inherit. As for police spending, I am prepared to put "failed to reform the police" on my long and eagerly awaited list of things that Tony Blair did wrong, but a promise to cut spending on law and order, even if police numbers were unaffected, is unlikely to persuade the voters that Labour values are theirs.

Labour should have said from the moment the coalition was formed that it did not agree with its plans to cut spending, but that it couldn't promise to reverse any cuts, that it accepted cuts were needed, and that it would even make some cuts that the Government would not.

It should have proposed deeper cuts in welfare spending. The winter fuel allowance, a benefit paid to pensioners regardless of how rich they are, is an obvious target. Labour could also have exploited the disagreement between coalition partners in the run-up to the Autumn Statement over the uprating of out-of-work benefits at a time when in-work tax credits are being frozen. George Osborne, the Chancellor, was worried about lessening the incentives for people on benefits to take work, but he was forced to uprate benefits by the Liberal Democrats.

Playing catch-up is better than staying off the pitch altogether and hoping that the pitch will move, but the two Eds are so far behind where they need to be that yesterday's welcome advance will have done nothing to deter those who argue that Labour needs to field a different team.

twitter.com/JohnRentoul; independent.co.uk/jrentoul

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager-Alcohol-OTE £90,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum + £50,000 OTE + Car, Mobile, Benefits: h2 Recruit Lt...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£23200 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join ...

Austen Lloyd: Company Secretary

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: EAST ANGLIA - SENIOR SOLICITOR LEVEL ROLE** -...

Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Technical Support Consultant - Helpdesk

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to continuing expansion, a ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Rents in five regions of England and Wales are higher than 12 months ago  

Today was a bad day for renters, landlords, and democracy

Hannah Williams
Christian Bale stars as Moses in Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings  

Ridley Scott, it’s not about casting 'Mohammad so-and-so', it’s about realising you have a duty to make stars of non-white actors

Alice Jones
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game