The World at One interview on Ed Miliband’s speech

Martha Kearney: How significant a shift does today’s speech mark? There’s certainly been strong rhetoric that we’ve heard, ‘difficult choices’, there’s going to be a ‘different party’ with a ‘new approach’. What is there really of substance?

Ed Balls: I think that what’s happening here is that for the first time people are waking up in the country and the media to the fact that the coalition government had a plan which they said would work to get the economy moving, to get unemployment down, to reduce the deficit and it’s not worked.

MK: But that’s what you’ve said again and again in previous interviews. I understand the argument that you want to make attacking the government. I was asking what’s different about Labour’s position that we are hearing today?

EB: I was answering the question. At the point where people say the economy has flatlined and George Osborne’s borrowing £158 billion more, for the first time, they are turning to say: what is the Labour alternative, is it credible, can it work? And we are clear both that the government’s plan is not working now – they are going too far and too fast – and the government does not have a plan to reform the economy to create jobs in a fair way for the long-term.

MK: [Interrupting] I know you want to criticise the government a lot. But do you accept that Labour has a credibility issue?

EB: But Martha, we cannot win the argument for the alternative short-term and long-term unless people say that we would make the tough decisions in the long-term interests of the country based up on fiscal discipline and probity. Of course it’s a challenge for us because we lost the election and in the first year and a half of this parliament people wanted to give the government benefit of the doubt. Now, as they see the government’s failing, they are asking: can Labour credibly deliver an alternative? We have got to be clear. Look, there’s going to have to be cuts. There would have to be difficult decisions. We would have to have cuts in police. We’d have to have cuts in the schools budget. We’d have to have cuts in the defence budget as Jim Murphy said last week. The government is going recklessly fast and the problem there is that it leads to higher unemployment and higher borrowing. Their plan doesn’t work. We have got to win the argument with a credible alternative.

MK: You have said that you want to make tough decisions and you have talked in very general terms. When you get down to specifics, it’s small beer really, saying that you may not be able to reverse the government’s cuts on the winter fuel allowance which is one of the new things that Ed Miliband said today. That’s tiny in comparison with the deficit that needs to be cut.

EB: As shadow chancellor, I can say to you unequivocally we can make no commitment to reverse any of the government’s tax rises or spending cuts because we don’t know the state of the economy we are going to inherit and what the fiscal position would be. And I fear, as Ed Miliband said today –

MK: [Interrupting] You know it’s going to be pretty bad, don’t you?

EB: It’s going to be tough and therefore I can’t come along and make any irresponsible commitments to you now. We have said, for example, on policing, we’d cut the budget by 12 per cent. That is a big cut. Twenty per cent though is a step too far and will lead to 16,000 officers not being on the beat. That is what we mean by too far and too fast.

MK: How is talking about making spending cuts irresponsible? Isn’t that the responsible thing to do?

EB: The responsible thing to do is to set out with credibility an alternative which would work. You won’t get this deficit down without growth and jobs. But even then, even with a more balanced plan and our five point plant for jobs and growth, we would still have difficult decisions which we will need to face up to between now and the next election as we prepare our manifesto. Ed Miliband was saying today: one, we must face up to those difficult choices; two, there’s things we can do, for example on energy bills or executive pay which don’t require spending; but thirdly, a stronger economy, to reform our economy to make it more long term is the better way to have stronger growth which will deliver the resources that we are going to need. It’s across that range of choices that we will need to set out our policies. But the reason why you are interested in it today is because for the first time it is clear that the government’s plan is not working. People are now saying -

MK: [Interrupting] No, it’s because Labour’s in such difficulty. People aren’t accepting that your economic strategy is working. You are behind in polling in terms of economic credibility. So you may believe that the government has got it wrong but the voters aren’t on your side on that.

EB: The government said the economy would grow. They said that borrowing would come down and that unemployment would fall. What’s happened is that the economy has flatlined, unemployment has risen and they are borrowing more.

MK: Why isn’t the public buying that argument? In recent opinion polls, when people were asked what do they think is the single most important reason for the latest slowdown, they say debts which the last Labour government racked up.

EB: The interesting question is, when I came on your programme six months ago, your argument was the government’s plan will work and yours won’t. Now we see the government’s plan hasn’t worked, the questions is, can politically we turn around the opinion polls. We will only do that through scrutiny from the public and from you and from us setting out the alternative. For the first time, people are saying: what is Labour’s alternative and is it credible? That is a very important moment politically. That is why this is such a significant day because from now on people will be judging a failing Conservative plan against a Labour alternative. I have got to, and Ed has got to, answer the question: is it credible, is it tough, is it discipline, will we resist the short-term fix on pay, pensions, spending or whatever.

MK: Is it possible that you are part of the problem because you are too wedded to the past’s policies. In fact that was one of the points made by Lord Glasman. He said that ‘old faces from the Brown era still dominate the shadow cabinet, they seem stuck in defending Labour’s record in all the wrong ways.’

EB: Outside the Westminster studios and the university seminar rooms, people up and down the country aren’t debating who was where ten years ago. They are saying what’s happening to my job now, my child’s chance of education next year.  They’re saying will we keep our home. They’re saying will we be able to afford a pension or a holiday. What they want is answers from politicians about the future.

MK: Part of those answers is going to be who is going to be in charge of the country’s economy and part of that may well be focussing on who they’d like to see as chancellor and there has been particular personal criticism directed against you. David Cameron attacked you. He apologised for using the term ‘Tourette’s’ but the way that you behave in the House of Commons has been singled out for criticism?

EB: Are you saying you validate David Cameron’s attack and his slurring of people with Tourette’s because of the economic argument?

MK: No of course I’m not. I said he’d apologised for them. What I said is you behave in a certain way in the House of Commons. People have pointed out that you barrack Conservative opponents. You make a lot of hand gestures. Is that something that’s perhaps a turn-off to some voters?

EB: I don’t think so. I think people want an opposition which takes the argument to the government. Sometimes David Cameron gives the impression that he deserves to be there and nobody deserves to criticise his views and his policies and he obviously attempts, whether it’s women who he patronises or me who he makes offensive comments about which don’t offend me but did offend many people up and down the country suffering from Tourette’s. I don’t think that’s the right way to do politics. I think you should debate not about smear but about policy. David Cameron’s policies are failing. They are unfair, they are not working, on the deficit or unemployment and we will argue for the alternative. And to be honest, Martha, I will do that in a direct, clear, honest and open way but I am not going to say offensive things about David Cameron or anybody else. I don’t think that’s the right way to do politics.

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Posted January 10th, 2012 by Ed's team