Greg Clark is Financial Secretary to the Treasury and MP for Tunbridge Wells. Follow Greg on Twitter.
“The truth,” says Peter Oborne in a typically compelling article for the Daily Telegraph last week, “is that Mr Balls isn’t any good as shadow chancellor.” Oborne adds that “this is an open secret in the Labour Party.”
There aren’t many benefits to being out of power, but one of them is the freedom to develop new policy, unfettered by the immediate demands of government. The key policies that the current Government is implementing now – for instance, on reducing the deficit, restoring educational standards, reforming welfare, controlling immigration and localising power – first took shape while we were in opposition.
The policy work that was done before the election is an important reason why, despite the complications of coalition government, we’ve been able to pursue a demanding programme reform right from day one.
If nothing else, a good Opposition should at least be able to engage with the Government on a serious, intellectual level – challenging the ideas that underpin government policy, proposing alternatives and, perhaps, in the process of argument and counter-argument, advancing our common understanding of the great issues of the day.
But there is no such engagement from Labour. Ballsism, if we can speak of such a thing, is all about frustrating thoughtful analysis of any kind. It operates according to its own internal rules, which can be summarised as follows: Admit no mistakes; avoid consistency; propose nothing new. Let’s look at these in more detail:
- Rule 1: Admit no mistakes. Ed Balls – and, let us not forget, Ed Miliband – were the most senior members of Gordon Brown’s inner circle. The mess that Gordon Brown made of the economy was their mess, his mistakes were their mistakes. Despite this (or, rather, because of it) there has been no hint of an apology. Thus, in opposition, Labour’s economic policy is built upon a foundation of denial – hardly the best way to get off to a new start. This even goes so far as Ed Balls denying, on camera, that his Government ran a structural deficit before the financial crisis. When the failure to face the truth is that blatant, meaningful debate is impossible.
- Rule 2: Avoid consistency. The Labour front bench claims to recognise, in principle, the need for cuts in public expenditure, but it opposes almost every single actual saving that we have made or plan to make. On borrowing, they criticised the Government when the OBR forecast that reducing our debt would take a year more than first forecast – while, at the same time, demanded that we borrow even more. They make spending commitments which are announced and then ‘retired’ so that the same pot of money can be used to justify multiple promises. Because they don’t have a coherent economic programme, they seek to avoid being pinned down as to what their proposed economic programme actually is – as when, in a recent interview, Ed Balls had to be asked six times before admitting that Labour’s policy is to increase borrowing.
- Rule 3: Propose nothing new. The challenges that we face as a nation (indeed, those that are faced by all the nations of the developed world) are like nothing that we have experienced in generations: the banking crisis, the debt crisis, the eurozone crisis – to say nothing of the disruption caused by globalisation, automation and demographic change. These are momentous times – and yet Labour approach them as if nothing has changed since 1997: any problem can be solved by insouciantly spending some more. Where is the Labour plan for welfare reform to match the seriousness and scale of Iain Duncan Smith’s decade-long devotion to rethinking welfare? Where is the programme to take power from Whitehall and build up our towns and cities as we are doing with City Deals and Michael Heseltine’s work? Where is the plan to transform school standards to rival the passion which Michael Gove brings to improving the lives of the new generation? On all the main areas of policy that should galvanise an opposition yearning to be a government, Labour have nothing to say.
To admit no mistakes, to avoid consistency, to propose nothing new may give the impression that the shadow chancellor doesn’t know what to do. That, however, isn’t quite right. In fact, this approach is quite deliberate.
Ten years ago I wrote a book entitled Total Politics, which exposed the ruthless politicisation of the state in order to further the power of the Labour Government. Communication, funding, audit, inspection, regulation: the means of administration were all bent to political ends. Now, with the levers of power out of Labour hands, Balls has adapted the practice of total politics to the circumstances of opposition.
The absence of self-criticism, coherence and innovation in Labour’s economic policy making are all calculated. The idea is that minimal policy allows maximum politics. Having nothing to defend provides Labour with the greatest freedom to attack.
That, however, is all it does. It is essentially destructive, rather than constructive, in nature. By the time of the next election, voters will want to know what kind of future a Labour Government would build for them – or, at least, what kind of future a Labour Government would let people build for themselves.
And at that point, if not long before, it will be clear that these years of opposition have been wasted.