I’ve already written far too many words about deficit reduction today, so I shall abstain from adding many more about Ed Miliband’s speech on the same subject. Really, though, there’s not much to say. This was exactly the sort of speech you’d expect an Opposition leader to make: we’re not like those horrible Tories who want to send the public sector back to the Stone Age*, he said, but don’t worry we do take deficit reduction super-seriously. The only surprising thing was that Miliband hadn’t made this clear years ago.
To give the Labour leader some credit, there was one passage that had me nodding along enthusiastically. It came when he was explaining why his fiscal rules aren’t set for a specific date, but only “as soon as possible”:
“Our rule is right for two reasons.
Because it targets the right aim and it does not set an arbitrary date.
There is a lesson from this Parliament about the huge uncertainty there is around deficit reduction.
The easy thing is for politicians to claim great certainty when there is not.
The right thing to do is to set a clear objective with a realistic destination – balancing the books and the debt falling as soon as possible in the next Parliament – and this is what we have done.”
Which is basically something that I’ve argued before, in the context of George Osborne’s fiscal rules. As I put it in that post, “we should stop pretending that neat, arbitrary levels can be met and set.” This Parliament has already tested that idea to destruction.
But the problem for Miliband is that he’s not well positioned to make this point. It all comes down, as usual, to trust. If we trust someone to reduce the deficit, then their “as soon as possible” sounds pretty damn quick. But if we don’t trust them do so, then “as soon as possible” sounds like a cop-out. And it sure sounds like a cop-out coming from the Labour leader. This is someone who has taken four years to deliver a halfway serious speech about the public finances. When he talks about making cuts, it’s often just to fund other policies.
The same goes for Miliband’s “first pledge of the general election campaign,” which is to cut the deficit every year. But does he mean by £billions, or by a few stray pounds? The only place we can look for an answer, for now, is Labour’s fiscal record. And that ain’t pretty.
*Or, rather, to when Gordon Brown walked the Earth.