It’s been almost a year since we switched from the opposition to the government benches, and we’ve already made huge progress, putting in place the deficit reduction plan and making Britain open for business again.
But changing where you sit in the chamber also gives you an interesting perspective on your opponents. I spent two years in the Shadow Treasury team, and it taught me that being in Opposition is not just about opposing; it’s about presenting a credible alternative government.
So how are Labour doing? Right now, they don’t seem to be adjusting well to their new role.
Fiscal discipline can make or break an opposition. But after the two Eds’ much-hyped warning to front benchers not to promise any new spending, Labour have managed to rack up £16 billion of unfunded commitments in the last few weeks alone – a staggering figure.
When Ed Balls was confronted with it on the BBC, he blustered “there are no shadow ministerial commitments; no commitments to reverse any of these changes. I’m the Shadow Chancellor. It’s not gonna happen”.
But the slap-down to shadow ministers was short-lived. Just days later, Andy Burnham said he would reinstate Educational Maintenance Allowance at a cost of £586 million. Ed Balls himself promised that a Labour Chancellor would pay out Age Related Payments to pensioners – at a cost of £600 million a year.
Labour want to show a bit of leg on benefits, but when confronted with their lack of discipline, claim they ‘never said nothing’. It’s not just dog whistle politics – it begs real questions about credibility and leadership.
Then there’s the kind of double-think we saw in Labour’s response to our pro-growth budget. Labour support what they see as “good”, but won’t support the means to fund it. They support our measures to cancel the fuel duty escalator, but oppose the supplementary charge on extra profits on North Sea oil when the oil price is high which pays for it. They support the corporation tax cut, but oppose capital allowance simplifications that help fund it.
The only policy which Ed Balls has announced in his three months in the job is cutting VAT on fuel. As a former Treasury Special Adviser, City Minister and general Gordon Brown gopher, it is inconceivable that Ed Balls didn’t know that this was illegal under current EU law.
But his call was never intended as a responsible alternative policy – it was a political tactic: he couldn’t propose a cut in fuel duty because he knew that Labour would have hiked it by 6p. “Stop the VAT rise!” shouts Ed Balls. But when it was voted on in the House, Labour didn’t oppose it. "Stop the tax credit changes!" shouts Ed Miliband. But when it was voted on in committee, Labour didn't oppose them.
And it’s the same story when it comes to the big questions on the economy. Despite arguing, in the face of all economic evidence, that Labour did not cause a structural deficit, Ed Balls promised Ed Miliband that he would stick to the Darling plan for deficit reduction in order to get the Shadow Chancellor job. This was a plan, remember, which was never considered rigorous enough by Fitch, Moody’s, Standard & Poors, the CBI, the European Commission, the OECD, by 35 business leaders and numerous international institutions.
But even this "half a plan" would have meant £14 billion cuts in the fiscal year that has just started, according to Treasury figures. If Labour wanted to be a credible opposition they would be demonstrating that they have the political will to do so and be setting out the detail on their £14 billion cuts. But we have heard not a peep from Labour on how they would even begin to make any of these tough decisions. They caused this mess, but when asked how they would deal with it, they have no answers. Instead, Ed Miliband pops up at a TUC march standing alongside union leaders who reject the need to cut at all. Again, it’s not just a question of credibility, but of leadership and integrity.
As credit ratings agencies downgrade highly indebted countries and Washington hammers out a deal to start spending cuts now, the global debate about how we live within our means is leaving Labour increasingly isolated. But Ed Balls’ response to the momentous events of the past week is to call the credit ratings downgrade a “public relations opportunity”.
The Labour Party are still arguing that we should allow debt to keep on rising rather than getting it under control within a parliament. As a strategy, deficit denial has left them in no-man’s land. And that’s the problem with the Labour Party in opposition. Integrity and credibility play second fiddle to this week's manoeuvring. They are in favour of “good stuff” but can’t make the tough decisions necessary to achieve it. And for Ed Miliband and Ed Balls, short-term political opportunism always triumphs over doing the right thing for our country's long term future.