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.