Ed Balls accused the Scottish National Party of wanting a Conservative government and not being a “progressive” party as he appealed to voters to focus on the “real choice” in today’s general election.
In an interview with The Independent, the shadow Chancellor said he would not negotiate his first Budget this summer with SNP MPs even if Labour needed their votes to secure its passage, and would tell the SNP to “take it or leave it”. He said a minority Labour government would adopt the same approach at its first hurdle – the Queen’s Speech – to challenge the SNP to vote with the Conservatives and possibly put them back into power.
Senior Labour figures are worried that the SNP’s prediction of post-election talks between Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon will damage Labour’s prospects in England. Yesterday Mr Miliband insisted he was “not countenancing defeat” in what he called “the closest, most important and clearest choice” election for a generation.
In his attack on the SNP, Mr Balls said: “For 25 years, the SNP has had two goals – to split Scotland from the rest of the UK and damage Labour. Of course Nicola Sturgeon would prefer a Tory government. She knows that her independence agenda would be served by that.” He promised: “There is no way in which a Labour government would undermine the Union by dealing and trading with the SNP after the election. Ed Miliband will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon. It is not on this planet.”
Dismissing the SNP plan for an anti-Tory “progressive alliance” as “nonsense”, Mr Balls said: “For Labour, a progressive agenda is part of our DNA. For the SNP, progressive language is window dressing. It would trade cuts in public spending for fiscal autonomy, which would mean deeper spending cuts in Scotland – but it doesn’t care.”
He added: “Like a vote for the SNP, a vote for the Greens in England makes it more likely David Cameron is prime minister. If you don’t want the Tories, you have got to vote Labour.”
Mr Balls was interviewed during a whistle-stop tour of two Tory-held marginals – Stevenage and Peterborough – which Labour hopes to capture today. He gave a pep talk to Labour activists.
Because he is not accompanied by security men, Mr Balls has met more “real people” than most senior politicians during visits to 45 key seats. Despite fears of a “Gillian Duffy moment”, he was not harangued until Tuesday, when a “Tory pensioner” ambushed him on a train.
Mr Balls said the public mood is much better towards Labour than at the 2010 election. Right on cue, two men came up to him at Stevenage station to ask for a selfie and an autograph. But another man shouted: “You’re a bad boy – austerity-lite – I want Old Labour.” A relieved Mr Balls said he could live with being attacked from the left. When he canvassed briefly in Stevenage, very few people were at home. Mr Balls approached a man in the street, but he had already used his postal vote – “for Ukip, sorry.”
In the interview, the shadow Chancellor dismissed Blairites’ criticism that putting Labour’s plan to cut the deficit every year on the first page of its manifesto was “too little, too late”. He insisted he had been spelling out tough and difficult cuts for four years and that Labour’s zero-based spending review had found more than £2bn of savings. “It is beginning; we will build on it with the Civil Service,” he said.
It is believed that Mr Balls was sometimes keener to set out cuts than Mr Miliband. Although a ComRes survey showed that 59 per cent of people believe the previous Labour government spent too much, Mr Balls insisted: “The public know there was a global financial crisis, that the banks caused the downturn.”
He did not accept the Institute for Fiscal Studies prediction that debt would be £90bn higher under Labour than the Tories. He said the figure was based on Labour balancing the books by 2020, when that could happen earlier, while the party would go for “a surplus, not balance”.
The shadow Chancellor dismissed George Osborne’s warning of a “fallout Friday” on the financial markets if Labour wins power. He claimed the markets would be more worried about two years of turmoil under the Tories ahead of their in/out EU referendum.
Mr Balls refused to join “idle speculation” about whether a Labour government would be legitimate if it came to power with SNP help after the Tories had won more seats. He said: “David Cameron tried attacking Ed Miliband and then spent a month attacking Scotland. He is willing to divide England and Scotland, risk Britain leaving the EU and use any short-term political tactic he can to prevent people focusing on the choice. It is not worthy of a prime minister. It is the most unstatesmanlike, reckless, irresponsible behaviour.”
Any differences between Mr Miliband and Mr Balls are usually resolved one-to-one rather than through rival newspaper headlines – a deliberate break with the bitter battles between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, which the “two Eds” witnessed as Brown aides.
Mr Balls, defeated for the Labour leadership in 2010, praised Mr Miliband for uniting the party since. Asked for the biggest lesson he has learnt as shadow Chancellor, Mr Balls replied: “That even in the most challenging circumstances, it is possible to have decency and unity through good leadership. This party has not repeated history [through in-fighting after election defeat]. It has defied history.”
Looking back on the Blair-Brown wars, he said: “Politics is tough on all of us. Sometimes it can be bruising. We have learnt that optimism and decency can prevail. There were times when both sides [Blair and Brown] should have elevated the bigger purpose. Both sides were at fault. We got bogged down. I am very pleased now to be part of a non-cynical Labour Party.”
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