In Depth

Miliband addresses deficit - but offers only austerity-lite

Labour leader proclaims Osborne cuts ‘extreme’ – but Ed Balls fails to explain how his will be different

The Mole

It’s the D-word Ed Miliband famously forgot to mention in his party conference speech. Today he will try to show that Labour is serious about getting down the deficit and balancing the books over the next five-year parliament – if the party is returned to power at the coming general election.

He will accuse the Tories of being driven by ideology in their plan to reduce spending as a proportion of GDP to 35 per cent - a level not seen since the 1930s.

Labour will have to make serious cuts too, he will say in what is being billed as a keynote speech, but in contrast to the Tories’ slash-and-burn policies, Labour’s squeeze on public expenditure will be “tough but balanced”.

George Osborne was infuriated last week when a BBC political correspondent suggested the small print on further cuts in public spending in his Autumn Statement conjured up a return to the poverty portrayed in George Orwell’s 1937 book, The Road to Wigan Pier.

Extracts of Miliband’s speech leaked to the press show he plans to exploit Osborne’s discomfort by seeking to portray the Prime Minister and his Chancellor as extremists in their lust for cuts.

“The Tory plan is to return spending on public services to a share last seen in the 1930s, a time before there was a National Health Service and when young people left school at 14,” Miliband will say, according to the Daily Telegraph

“They have finally been exposed by the Autumn Statement for what they really are: not modern compassionate Conservatives at all - but extreme and ideological, committed to a dramatic shrinking of the state and public services, no matter what the consequences.”

It’s a difficult balancing act for Miliband. In order to regain credibility among floating voters who question Labour’s competence in running the economy, he has to show he is ready to make serious cuts in public spending.

But he also to avoid upsetting Labour's core voters who haven’t felt this broke for years and who are being told every day by party spokesmen that they will be £1,600 worse off on polling day under the Tories.

If Miliband is not to be accused of flannelling today, he will need to give a lot more detail that the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, offered this morning on Radio 4’s Today programme. 

While promising that Labour’s cuts would be different and somehow kinder than those proposed by the Tories, he ducked every question when presenter Sarah Montague asked for detail.

He refused to say which government departments would suffer further cuts (other than Health and Overseas Aid, both of which will be “ring-fenced” just as the Tories have promised), how great those cuts might be, and by when exactly he aims to “balance the books”.

“What different position are you giving us that is different from the Conservatives?” asked Montague.

Balls: “I am not going to make promises I cannot keep… I want to do it by the end of the parliament. I want to do it sooner in the parliament if I can but I can’t promise to do that earlier if we don’t know what is happening to growth or tax revenues. There are going to be cuts but not on the scale of the Conservatives’ because theirs are extreme.”

Montague: “Can we have some detail on this? When will you have eliminated the headline deficit?”

Balls: “I’ve just said to you Sarah.”

Montague: “You haven’t - you’ve said ‘as soon as possible’.”

Will Miliband do better in today’s speech? We shall see. 

As Phil Webster of The Times wrote this morning, “Recovering credibility on the economy will take more than one speech. But there will be huge relief among Labour MPs that Miliband is making this one because his memory lapse on the deficit at his conference has not been forgotten.”

It appears voters are being asked to choose between two competing visions – Tory cuts in spending that would take Britain back to the 1930s or Labour cuts that would take us back to the time before the Blair Government when Labour last had a public expenditure squeeze under Labour Chancellor Denis Healey - the 1970s.

It’s not much of a choice - and it singularly fails to impress those commentators who want Labour to offer a genuinely alternative vision, not just Tory austerity-lite.

As Kevin Maguire of the Daily Mirror tweeted this morning: "Bailed-out bankers must be laughing into their bonuses - the election is an uninspiring Labour austerity v Tory austerity."

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