Saturday, 25 January 2014

The two faces of Ed Balls


During the Labour leadership election, many people were impressed by Ed Balls' apparent conversion to a social democratic economic settlement as espoused in his Bloomberg speech.

But since then Balls has committed a Labour government in 2015 to sticking with Tory spending plans for at least the first year. He has also said that Labour will not promise to reverse Tory cuts, and that Labour would have to make more in office. He has supported the public sector pay freeze, while Ed Miliband somewhat contradictorily waxes on about the cost of living crisis.

This morning the media was filled with similar tough messages, briefing ahead of Balls' speech at the Fabian Society, including the parliamentary garbage that "Balls will promise to legislate for new fiscal rules within 12 months of the general election, including a commitment to a budget surplus by the end of the parliament". Legislate for it? Really? Will the chancellor be surcharged if the target is not met? Or will a technocrat be installed to make cuts? It really is nonsense. On the upside, it should be noted that Balls is committing to a current account surplus, which allows for borrowing for capital investment - see 'Borrowing for Growth - some advice for Ed'.

Nevertheless, like any wannabe chancellor, Balls knows how to pull a rabbit out of a hat. And so the tough, 'we'll enforce austerity too' message will be overshadowed by a debate about a modestly higher rate of income tax on a few high earners. It is very welcome that Balls has committed to restoring the 50% tax rate on those earning over £150,000. It was probably the most popular policy in Gordon Brown's premiership.

What is also welcome, and will hopefully be widely reported, is that Balls also said:
"The latest figures show that those earning over £150,000 paid almost £10 billion more in tax in the three years when the 50p top rate of tax was in place than when the government conducted its assessment of the tax back in 2012"
This corrects the crap put out by the Treasury in its dodgy dossier of the 2012 Budget. Both the move to pledge to restore the 50% rate and the analysis is welcome, and hints at a return to '
Bloomberg Balls'.

However, before Labour activists start getting weak at the knees about a return to some form of modest social democracy, Balls also told the Fabian conference that Labour supported the benefit cap, the public sector pay freeze, thought public utilities belonged in the open market, and that universal winter fuel payments for pensioners should be means-tested.

We've seen the two faces of Ed Balls today in one day. Capitulating to Osborne, the financial markets and the Murdoch media this morning, while throwing a modest redistributive morsel to the left at lunchtime. Bon appetit!

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