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

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Ashdown Group: PHP Web Developer / Website Coordinator (PHP, JavaScript)

£25000 - £28000 per annum + 25 days holidays & pension: Ashdown Group: PHP Web...

Recruitment Genius: Estates Projects & Resources Manager

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Based in London, Manchester, Br...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: moderate, iconic royals are a shoe-in for a pedantic kicking

Guy Keleny
 

Letter from the Whitehall Editor: Cameron is running scared from the “empty chair”

Oliver Wright
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us