The hall was full. Ish. Ed Balls, the Shadow Chancellor stepped to the podium. Much has been said of late about the problem of “pigmy politics,” and of the lack of substantial figures in British politics. Mr Balls is one of the counters to that analysis. He brings with him an air of weight, of heft—of menace also.
This morning, on Radio 4, he insisted that he had played no part in the internecine warfare of the Blair vs Brown days, and had certainly had no part in, and was unaware of, the activities of Damian McBride, Gordon Brown’s spin doctor and, it appears now, his punisher-in-chief. As he denied Mr McBride on Radio 4, Balls’s voice leaped sharply higher. Was it the unintentional descant of a man being economic with la verite? Or was he remembering moments at which Mr McBride had grabbed him on a politically sensitive point and squeezed tightly?
Either way, Balls stood at the podium today as a man who had spent the morning partly engaged in distancing himself from Brown-era murk, which was less than ideal. But it was to his credit that he still managed to deliver a speech of some substance.
There was inevitably the tedious listing of the Government’s record in office, the blame for the sluggish recovery and a brusque assessment of Osborne and Cameron’s record. “On every test they set themselves,” said Balls, “they have failed.”
Then the verb-less lists began: “Three years of flatlining. The slowest recovery for over 100 years. A million young people out of work. Welfare spending soaring. More borrowing to pay for their economic failure.” Wasn’t this strain of Powerpoint rhetoric done away with when Blair left office? Cicero would be revolving in his grave (if they ever got round to burying him.)
This guff having been dispensed, Balls came round to the serious passages of the speech. First up was George Osborne’s Help to Buy scheme, which aims to help first time buyers stump up for houses of up to £600,000 in value. Balls addressed the Chancellor in his best, most agonised voice.
“George,” began Balls, “it’s basic economics. If you push up housing demand, but don’t act to boost housing supply, all that happens is that you push house prices up and up. And the end result is that the very people your policy should be helping—young first time buyers—will find it even harder to get on the housing ladder.”
This is a perfectly valid point. Balls might also have added that Osborne’s policy risks pumping up a housing bubble which, if it bursts, threatens to put large numbers of home-owners into negative equity, leaves banks having to write off bad mortgage debts and the government facing a huge bill to make good on all the mortgages it has guaranteed. But perhaps Balls thought better than to raise the spectre of asset price bubbles. One such bubble exploded when Balls was in government, resulting in the Credit Crunch, banking collapse and eurozone crisis. He is open to challenge on such areas of debate.
Balls then conceded that the child benefit cut for the highest earners would have to stay in place, that there would be a benefit cap, and that the retirement age would have to rise. This last one went by without a murmur—high officials at various trades unions will no doubt have written that one down. They might possibly have underlined it also. The bedroom tax would be scrapped though, said Balls. Sustained applause.
He then made comments about the Office for Budget Responsibility, that were examined on this blog earlier today—but then came the final straight and at this, Balls got into something like his stride. Labour would introduce a 10p starting rate of tax, which would amount to “a tax cut for 25 million hard-working people on middle and lower incomes,” he said. A strong idea—an unkind onlooker, however, might have reminded Balls that his former boss, Gordon Brown, had abolished the 10p rate in the first place.
“And we will pay for it by introducing a mansion tax on properties worth over £2m,” said Balls and with this the crowd mooed its approval. They liked that one. (But who will value all those houses? Surely someone would have to.)
The childcare zinger was perhaps the best moment of all. “The next Labour government will increase the bank levy rate,” he said “to raise an extra £800m a year.”
“And we will use the money, for families where all parents are in work, to increase free childcare places for three and four years olds from 15 hours to 25 hours a week.”
Balls brought his comments to a conclusion with another list of government failures, contrasted with Labour’s ambitious vision, and then it was all over. Ed Miliband came forward, beaming, to shake Balls’s hand. Miliband is much the taller of the two Eds.
The childcare announcement is an example of a policy with “vote-winner” written all over it. The question is whether that moniker applies also to Ed Balls.