IN proper writing, an anti-climax is either very clever or very stupid.
It is the kink in the plot so brilliant no-one could see it coming, or the daft, bathetic twist that makes you wonder why you bothered with the story in the first place. One is worth the price of admission, the other is not.
To be fair to Ed Balls and Labour, they have kept their soap opera going for the best part of three years. Some of us have been on the edge of our seats wondering whether the Shadow Chancellor would cut loose from fiscal orthodoxy – with a leap, a bound, and a borrowing requirement – or whether he would be content to remain a spear carrier in the tragedy.
That was silly. Labour reverts to type for the excellent reason that Labour patented the type.
If you believe that your life or society has been consumed by mindless, nihilistic austerity, fret no more. The Shadow Chancellor will “work within” George Osborne’s spending plans.
This raises a couple of points. One has to do with Ed Miliband’s party following a tactic pursued by Tony Blair’s party. In important things, it turns out, the younger of the MiliBros has not altered fundamental Labour policy to any significant degree, despite all the chatter about a “break with the past”.
What was good enough for Tony is good enough for Ed. A Tory plan, smudged up a little, will do as a Labour plan.
Equally, if Mr Balls takes himself all the way to Canary Wharf – now there’s symbolism – to give a speech at Thomson Reuters to say that:
“we will start, we will plan, we will expect in 2015-16 that we will inherit the current spending plans that the Chancellor sets out and we will work within them,”
what have the last three years been about?
Just that Mr Osborne was a bit hasty, a bit wrong, a bit slightly different from anything Labour might have done? It hardly counts as a grand refutation.
Mr Balls has spent the last three years telling us that the Coalition erred in matters of fundamental principle. Now he simply says that Labour would do nicer cuts.
In terms of politics, Mr Balls paints himself into a dismal little corner. Rather than take the Tory boast of a credit-worthy Britain able to borrow always for investment and test the notion, he knuckles under to the demand for “balanced” cuts. Some of his language is worse than comical, less than risible.
“And when our NHS and social care system is under such pressure,” he says, “can it really remain a priority to pay the winter fuel allowance – a vital support for middle and low-income pensioners – to the richest 5% of pensioners, those with incomes high enough to pay the higher or top rates of tax?”
Cut one, cut all. When you dispense with universality, it becomes a game of beggar every neighbour.
Last week’s richest become this week’s could-probably-cope.
That people attached to a thing called the Labour Party don’t get this, or find the idea of social solidarity laughable, might count as a small peek into the dingy world of Mr Balls. But then, we await Johann Lamont’s principled view on prescription charges.
It’s not socialist, not by any stretch of the word. The abused term “social democrat” doesn’t quite fit. The best that Mr Balls has left is an attenuated notion of social justice, or what these days all those parties like to call fairness. But how fair is that, really?
If you take on Mr Osborne’s “limits” – who declared these limitations? – you accept a view of the world. You wind up with what Mr Balls and his party call a “zero-based spending review”.
You take the word of the robber barons who insist that the poor must always pay.
You also accept that any future Labour government will do exactly as it is bid “within limits”.
In his speech, Mr Balls said a lot about growth and nothing much about how growth could be achieved. The purpose of his address was to assure someone – who and why? – that “Labour will take a tough and fair approach to deficit reduction”.
Not a single life will be improved by such nonsense.
No single existence will be changed because Mr Balls thinks there’s £100 million to be had from stripping away the winter fuel allowance from people in his income bracket.
So wonder. In Westminster, they believe that Labour was responding to a dodgy opinion poll – one punted around by Labour, oddly enough – seeming to prove that Mr Balls is not “trusted” on the economy. How do you become trusted? What must be done, by an agile political party doing badly, to win over those key swing voters in key English towns? Should you risk the truth?
Labour will not have worked it out yet, but the Shadow Chancellor’s speech down in Docklands was catastrophic for his party.
Set aside all the trimmings, it said that the Tories were right all along, that their view of how a state must balance its books must not be disputed, that cuts – quibble over the details, if you like – must always be made.
So the Shadow Chancellor sides with a Tory Chancellor whose record of achievement is, let’s say, patchy. So a Labour hack who failed to notice warnings of the biggest financial catastrophe in a century says that, all of a sudden, he can fix things. So the People’s Party expects applause for finding new ways to levy a rentier tax on the commonality.
What’s most striking, or most revealing, is that Mr Balls did not challenge the rules of the game. Across Europe, what used to be called the Left compete to see who can contort best, with Francois Hollande of France leading the field.
If global capitalism almost collapsed on its backside – for it did – what does the Left, British or European, have to say? Not a lot.
Ed Balls says he is “striking the right balance for the British economy”. Vote for him and the other Ed and you’ll get “action now to raise living standards, growth and long-term investment”. Were Mr Balls to be doing his job, he would explain what happened and why, if you give him access to the Exchequer, it would never happen again. That Ed Balls would give you analysis, explanation, and a promise.
Instead, you get a character who accepts the logic of everything his supposed opponent has done, and sympathises faintly for the inconvenience.
The modern world has a serious problem buried deep within its financial systems. Whether you lean towards the left or the right is irrelevant.
The idea that the crisis is over is a mistake.
A “socialist alternative” might be too much to hope for. A grasp of what is at stake is a minimum requirement. Where that leaves Ed Balls is an arithmetical puzzle.
Also by Ian Bell: Tory immunity to facts will not make them disappear Posted on June 3, 2013