On BBC1 Sunday Politics just now, Harriet Harman rowed back from what she told me for this week’s magazine: that Labour would not match Tory spending plans at the next election. The change in position is significant as it shows how Labour—and Ed Balls, in particular—want to keep this option open ahead of 2015.
In 1997, Gordon Brown’s commitment to keep to Tory spending plans for two years largely succeeded in reassuring people that Labour could be trusted with the economy. Balls, who was one of the architects of this policy, is said to be interested in doing the same in 2015. The thinking is that it would take the deficit off the table as an election issue and make it harder for the Tories to claim that a Labour government would spook the markets.
But if Labour were to sign up to George Osborne’s spending plans, I suspect there would be considerable internal opposition from Labour ranks. They are enjoying saying that Osborne is cutting too far, too fast. As Harman said in her interview with The Spectator, signing up to Tory spending plans would mean Labour abandoning its ‘ fundamental economic critique’ of the coalition. You can listen below to Harman’s conversation, which is transcribed:-
Andrew Neil: can you clear up the party line on Labour’s spending plans? You told the Spectator magazine this week that Labour would not sign up to Tory spending plans at the next election, and Shadow Chancellor Balls says he wants to keep all his options open. Who’s right, you or him?
Harriet Harman: Well, he’s right. I mean, I think the question, fairly put to me by The Spectator, was you know, what are you going to do in 2015? And the answer to that is we have got to be absolutely certain we do not make promises we can’t keep. The economy is going from bad to worse, and therefore we will have to shape our promises and our proposals as to what we can do in the light of the economic circumstance as they prevail as we come up to 2015. And we, you know, although we’ve got forebodings we can’t actually predict that now. But what I actually answered was what we would do now, which is now we would not be doing what the government is doing, which is sending us further into recession and therefore causing borrowing to rise. So I think there was a timing thing, which was, you know, my fault.
AN: I’m not sure there was, Miss Harman, because I’ve got the full transcript of The Spectator interview here. It is quite clear you were asked about promises for the next election.
HH: Yes, indeed.
AN: The question was do you think the next election will be hard on spending? You were then asked should you do again what you did in the 1997 election? So the question was clearly about your spending plans for the next election. So can we clarify that when you told the Spectator that you would not stick to Tory spending plans come the next election, that wasn’t correct?
HH: Well, I did, I’m afraid, do what I did just earlier on a few minutes ago, which is answer a question which hadn’t been asked…
AN: I’m glad I’m not the only one to whom you answer questions that you had not been asked.
[Tannoy ends interview]