What have we learned today?
Well, first that Labour haven’t changed their spots – asked at his manifesto launch to acknowledge that his party spent and borrowed too much last time they were in power, Ed Miliband refused to do so.
And yet the Opposition are clearly aware that their woeful reputation for fiscal and economic mismanagement is a serious weak spot. This led their decision to place a so-called “Budget Responsibility Lock” on Page One of their manifesto.
Let’s take its various claims in order:
“Our manifesto begins with the Budget Responsibility Lock we offer the British people. It is the basis for all our plans in this manifesto because it is by securing our national finances that we are able to secure the family finances of the working people of Britain.”
This is essentially David Cameron’s charge against them – that you can’t afford a healthy society or healthy services if the Government runs the Exchequer into the ground. The resulting argument is pretty clear: if you don’t think you can trust Labour with the public finances (and most still don’t), then you can’t trust them to deliver anything else.
“Every policy in this manifesto is paid for. Not one commitment requires additional borrowing. We are the first party to make that pledge and with this manifesto it is delivered.”
Which sounds nice. Except they carefully haven’t provided costings for their policies, so we have to take it on trust that Ed Balls’ maths is correct. Given that the document goes on to claim a 50p tax rate would raise money, even though we know the last one cost money, that seems a difficult line to swallow. Of all the people to take on trust about accurate public spending and taxation projections, the Eds would be pretty low down the list.
“A Labour government will cut the deficit every year. The first line of Labour’s first Budget will be: “This Budget cuts the deficit every year”. This manifesto sets out that we will only lay a Budget before the House of Commons that cuts the deficit every year, which the OBR will independently verify. We will get national debt falling and a surplus on the current budget as soon as possible in the next parliament. This manifesto sets out that we will not compromise on this commitment. “
And here the weasel words begin – three paragraphs in to their pitch to run the country. It emerged under questioning that the pledge to “get national debt falling” is in fact only a pledge to get it falling as a share of GDP, not to actually get into surplus and reduce the debt by as much as one penny. What’s more, Miliband also refused to even name a target year by which to eliminate the deficit. He denounced George Osborne for missing targets (which he has), but it’s hard to see how refusing to even aim to abolish the deficit by a particular time is in any way better than trying. Essentially, Labour are carving out wriggle room to borrow already.
The headline announcement of the manifesto, therefore, is that Miliband is appealing for us to trust him to tackle the deficit. Voters would be forgiven for wondering why they should do any such thing – not only did Labour end their term with a note announcing “there’s no money”, after years of waste and excessive spending, but in a recent poll Ipsos Mori found that zero per cent of Labour parliamentary candidates listed the deficit as one of the most important issues facing the country. Why should anyone trust the leader who forgot the deficit, or a batch of MPs who don’t think the deficit matters?
There’s an interesting practical point about this supposed “lock”, too. Apparently it was added by Labour on Friday, as a last minute decision. That says something about their priorities, but it also left me wondering what their original manifesto headline was intended to be. Aside from that first page on budget responsibility, there’s nothing in the other 85 pages that particularly stands out as either interesting or new.
There are the usual kowtows to vested interests (the NUT gets its demand to close down Free Schools; Brussels is protected against any risk of the people having a say on the EU; and Hugh Grant gets the Leveson proposals to restrain the free press).
There are various elements of dogma (scrap the “Bedroom Tax”, which isn’t a tax; put local councils back in charge of newly liberated schools; and “rescue our NHS”, presumably from the current high rate of patient satisfaction).
There are some instances of rowing back – such as the attempt to redefine the word “freeze” retrospectively to deny the practical blunder which Miliband performed on energy bills.
There are a couple of items of howling understatement, most notably, “Everyone involved in the NHS must learn lessons when things go wrong, for example, from the failings at Mid-Staffordshire and Morecambe Bay.”
But there are no stand-out new proposals. As discussed above, the pitch to regain their vanished trust on the public finances is both misleading and flawed, but at least it’s new. If they hadn’t added it in as an after-thought, this would be a wholly empty document.