Ed Balls puts an elbow in the face of 7m families
A bloody incident with a journalist on the football pitch sets the tone for Ed Balls’s conference address
Ed Miliband is going to make “saving the NHS” the centrepiece of his keynote address to the Labour Party conference tomorrow as part of a strategy to win back Labour’s core vote for the general election.
A pledge to fund the NHS would have a greater impact on the Labour party faithful gathering at Manchester than even the sight of chunky shadow chancellor Ed Balls elbowing a journalist in the face during the annual Labour v Press football match, much photographed in today’s papers.
The pictures of bloodied Northern Echo hack Rob Merrick, who needed stiches in a cheek wound, enhanced Balls’s reputation as a bruiser. He insisted on the Today programme this morning that there nothing malicious about the incident, but admitted: “I have to say it’s not a good picture…”
Now it appears Balls intends to put an elbow in the eye of millions of “striving” (his word) middle-class families as well as Britain’s richest earners.
By pledging to increase spending on the NHS, Miliband and Balls are clearly targeting the core voters for whom the NHS is a big motivator in supporting Labour. Public anxiety about the NHS was a key factor in the swing away from the No campaign in Labour’s own heartlands in last week’s Scottish independence referendum, according to post-referendum polling by Tory peer Lord Ashcroft.
“The Yes campaign’s recent focus on the NHS appears to have had an impact, with more than half (54 per cent) of Yes voters saying this was one of the most important factors in their decision,” said Ashcroft. “It was also notable that the NHS was a bigger factor for women, half of whom said it had affected their decision, than for men.”
Exactly how Miliband and Ed Balls are going to raise the money to fill the funding gaps in the NHS is under wraps for the time being: this morning, Balls simply confirmed: “We will do what it takes to make sure the NHS is secure in the next Parliament… People are worried about rising waiting times. Everybody knows that the Labour Party is the party of the NHS.”
There is not going to be a repeat of Gordon Brown’s policy of raising National Insurance Contributions (NICs) to pay for the NHS because that would hit all workers. With Balls promising to “balance the books” to “make the economy work for working people” that leaves higher taxes on the rich as the only feasible option.
Balls will be announcing a series of commitments on the economy today, targeted directly at the millions of workers who feel that the UK’s economic recovery has not improved their living conditions, because wages have stagnated while prices for essentials like electricity and gas have gone up.
Among his announcements today be the promise of a five per cent cut in ministerial salaries on Labour taking office (as the Today programme’s Sarah Montague pointed, it won’t add up to a row of beans given the size of the UK’s deficit, but it will make “working people” feel better); the return of the top rate of tax to 50p in the £; no more winter fuel allowances for those pensioners wealthy enough not to need it; higher taxes on hedge funders to help pay for the scrapping of the “bedroom tax”; and a pledge – announced by Ed Miliband in an interview with yesterday’s Sunday Mirror – to raise the minimum wage to £8 an hour “in the next Parliament” if Labour wins in May 2015.
But the most controversial measure to be announced by Balls today is that the one per cent cap on child benefit introduced by the coalition last year will be extended for the first two years of the next Parliament under Labour in order to save £400 million.
Less than a year ago Balls opposed the coalition measure, arguing that the cap would hit "striving families" who were paying the price for George Osborne’s "economic failure". Now he’s prepared to make the cut – which will affect seven million families - as a symbolic gesture to show that Labour can be trusted on the economy.
When Sarah Montague suggested it would hit the “squeezed middle”, the voters in middle England striving to pay their bills, for the sake of a very small saving when our national deficit runs into the billions, Balls blustered: “I don’t think there is any doubt that Labour has always stood up for families with children. We raised child benefit and reduced child poverty.
“I want to see child benefit go up if we possibly can in the later years of the Parliament… It is not my first choice, it is not the top of my wish list, it’s not something I enjoy, it is something that is necessary to balance the books.”
Persuading the electorate that Labour can balance the books is, of course, essential; whether in doing so the party can afford to upset the sort of middle-class families who put Tony Blair in Downing Street in three successive elections remains to be seen.