IN THE DOCK: Ed Balls

The charge: as a key advisor to Gordon Brown, Ed Balls is responsible for both high spending levels in the public sector, and flimsy financial regulation during the Labour years, making it impossible to argue against the cuts that we are now told must follow.

First things first: were spending levels that high during the Labour years? According to official figures, UK public spending in 1979 was 42.75% of GDP; in 1983 it was 43.20%; in 1997 it was 38.35%; in 2001 it was 35.41%; in 2005 it was 38.94%; and even when Gordon Brown took over as Prime Minister the figures hardly zoomed upwards as his critics seem to argue, with public spending only reaching only 39.75% of GDP in 2008, 44.54% in 2009 (following the economic crash), and 44.84% in 2010. Indeed, it looks like public spending as a percentage of GDP was considerably higher under Margaret Thatcher than it was under most of the Labour government. (Here’s a link if you don’t believe me: http://www.ukpublicspending.co.uk/uk_20th_century_chart.html)

Secondly, how can the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats lambaste any lack of economic regulation? They did not call for it at the time, and they’re unlikely to force any through now. And do we really want the government to be accountable for the successes and failures of business practices anyway? Perhaps if we didn’t bail them out when they go bust, they would regulate themselves in the first place. The problem is too much interference, not too little.

Curious that the same critics of Balls’ economic policy strategy who complain about Labour not imposing strict regulations on the banks then try to paint him as an overly illiberal, authoritarian, statist figure. Or perhaps it’s not curious. Because all the throwaway mentions of poor regulation are quite clearly an attempt to make the centre left blame Labour for the economic crisis in Britain, since blaming everything on government spending is obviously not going to be enough to win their votes. It’s an inconsistent, dishonest, and actually rather dangerous way to have the debate.

And it’s this misleading and patronising approach to the economic problems of the nation that most alienate impartial centrist voters. People don’t like being talked to like they’re stupid, especially on serious questions like the economy. Far from being the voice of government interference, Ed Balls – whether you agree with him or not – is potentially just what we need in opposition. Not afraid to trust us to understand the genuine complexities of the economic problem, not afraid to risk unpopularity by showing real substance, Ed Balls has an impressive brain, and he is tough. He is the perfect antithesis to the dull gloss that George Osborne thinks we are all believing.

The verdict: innocent.

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10 Comments

  1. Well occasionally the press do get it right (they hate people like Nick Griffin too…) but I find it exciting how nervous and sweaty the Tories are getting over Balls. (I just read that last sentence back to myself and I realise it is obviously open to many amusing jokes but it’s so funny I’m going to keep it there.):-)

  2. I concur with your figures re spending vs GDP and that’s fine in islolation. But during the “boom” years say 1997-2007, other leading industrialised nations reduced their budget deficits and reduced total debt (“save for rainy day, mend roof when sun shines, boom saving”), whereas UK didn’t, she spent and spent before the banking crisis. She had the largest structural budget deficit in the G7 in 2007 … http://bit.ly/h8AjEg

  3. Hi Art, thank you so much for reading and posting 🙂

    That may be the case but what always strikes me is that the Conservative party said all the time they would match Labour’s spending plans. They were either lying then, or they’re being disingenuous with the electorate now and hope they’ve forgotten. It’s easy to say with hindsight that we should have done x, y, or said… but I don’t believe that things would be much different whichever party was in power. It seems dishonest to heap so much on Balls and Brown when the Tories backed their plans at the time.

    I like what you write about the city in your link btw 🙂

    • You’re welcome! IMHO, the problem is two-fold: Labour public spending (via borrowing) from 2002. Cameron only supported those plans 3 years later from 2005 when he first became leader, I blame that on inexperience, and Cameron himself acknowledged last week on the Marr show that he did support those plans until after banking crisis. Second problem is the Brown/Balls “light-touch regulation”, which came into being before Cam/Osb era and which Cameron also supported (as a Tory would). But on both counts, it is the government in power at the time which is accountable, not the Opposition. That is the principle anyway but it doesn’t count for much in cut-throat, smoke & mirror politics as we have seen…. 😉

  4. The Press do get some bogeymen right, but they fear the likes of Balls (and before him Livingstone) because they are a rare mix of electability and leftish instincts. Blair was electable but had no leftish instincts; Brown the reverse. They are unsure yet about Red Ed, but they fear a new Livingstone, so he’s getting a much rougher ride already than Cameron (or Hague) got in his first twelve months.

  5. Hi Art,

    Yes it’s definitely true that the government of the day need to take responsibility, but that’s not the same thing as it being used as evidence of incompetence and a reason to vote for a different party when those making the accusations and said other party all backed those same policies. I agree that Cameron is inexperienced and fundamentally said what he thought sounded good not what he believed or thought would work. I personally would have liked to see David Davies or someone with a bit more of a mind at work in the top job – intelligence and understanding of the job actually matters more to me than ideological leanings (especially as broadly speaking there is very little ideological difference between any of them at the mo)

  6. I would argue there’s kind of a fine line between the press having an inherent bias against left-leaning figures and the public, whose views the press need to reflect, being adverse to leftist politics because they just don’t agree with those ideas. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg deal but I’d be hesitant to dismiss all the antipathy towards someone like Ken Livingstone as being a result of a biased media – personally I dislike the man for some of the dodgy homophobic sexist religious loonies he has very publically associated himself with, and some of the rubbish he used to waste Londoners money on when he was our Mayor. I totally agree that they must be scared of Balls though; they’d be idiots not to be. His clear engagement with the issues and grasp of the issues – along with, as you say, a strong ability to actually explain those ideas to people in a way that makes sense – provides an undeniable contrast to the government. Also, as the cuts start to really hurt people, the idea of spending to get the economy going again will be so attractive to people, that they will want to believe it works and wilfully choose to agree with him (just as initially most middle-class people were wilfully believing that cutting DLA or mobility allowance for people in care homes – for example – will make any iota of a difference whatsoever to the economy because it’s easier than taking responsibility for how much we’ve actually all been running up daft debts and using no end of public services like the NHS even if we could technically go private…)

  7. Livingstone has his faults and his detractors (justifiably so) but e was electable and leftish and still is – that’s why the media were so vicious in their assaults on his character (you had to see it to believe it in the 80s!).

    The spending option will look very attractive indeed when the UK economy is diving (as it will) and the US economy is booming (as it will) come about mid 2012.

  8. Pingback: Keep your Whig on: should Lib Dem voters give up on the dream of true liberalism? « Libertarian Lou's Blog

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