Leading article: A search for economic space that only partly succeeded


Ed Balls needed to do two things in his speech to the Labour party conference. He needed to rescue Labour's economic credibility from the curse of having presided over the boom before the bust. And he needed to stake out the ground between Labour and the Coalition in practical as well as rhetorical terms. It was a plausible performance, but not wholly successful.

Notwithstanding the dire warnings that Britain is facing "a decade of economic stagnation", the Shadow Chancellor cast himself as the voice of reasoned analysis, largely adopting the measured tones of the statesman-in-waiting rather than the Opposition rabble-rouser. He even went so far as to acknowledge that not all public money had been well spent under Labour, and apologised for the ruinously light-touch banking regulation.

Amid repeated assertions that Labour had learned its lessons were commitments to new fiscal rules and a pledge to spend money raised from the stakes in the nationalised banks to pay down the deficit. Both are more politics than economics, but they helped set the tone.

Compared with the tricky business of making a clean break with the past, Mr Balls's economic argument is a simple one. The crisis is not about debt, but about the absence of growth, he says. And the Government's austerity measures are making it worse, sucking life out of the economy, and creating a downward spiral that will leave the public finances in even worse shape as tax receipts slide and unemployment rockets.

Despite the slew of gloomy indicators in recent months – and last week's hints from the head of the International Monetary Fund – Mr Balls is premature in calling on the Government to re-think its cuts programme and disingenuous in his dismissal of the power of the bond markets. That said, there is a strong case for the Government to introduce measures to promote economic growth. Sadly, Mr Balls's five-point plan does not provide them.

First, there are niggles about some of the practicalities. Will a repeat of the bank bonus tax really raise enough money to build 25,000 affordable homes and guarantee jobs for 100,000 young people, for example? And how will the eye-catching call for a reversal of the VAT increase be paid for? There are also questions about some of the assumptions being made. It would be better to focus on freeing up small-business lending and boosting corporate investment than give a short-term lift to consumer spending, upon which the economy is already over-reliant.

Notably, the most appealing measures are those that bear a striking similarity to existing government plans, such as the call to bring forward long-term infrastructure programmes, and the proposed National Insurance holiday for small firms hiring new staff.

Therein lies Mr Balls's most intractable problem. He may claim that his analysis of Britain's economic woes is fundamentally different from the Government's, but his plans to fix the problems do not stray far. Not only did he explicitly rule out a promise to reverse any of the Coalition's tax rises or spending cuts, he also admitted that pensions contributions and the retirement age would also go up under Labour, and even characterised the looming strikes as playing to the Chancellor's desire for a distraction.

All that remained behind the rhetoric was a five-point plan that was little more than tinkering, albeit of a left-leaning stripe. Mr Balls may conjure up the spectre of the 1930s depression and call on the Government to "learn the lessons of history". But between the need for credibility and the economic reality, he has very little room to manoeuvre.

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