“Some people have argued that the deficit simply doesn’t matter,” said Ed Miliband towards the beginning of his speech at the Institute of Chartered Accountants.
Some people concluded that the Labour leader had included himself in that category after he forgot to mention the deficit in his speech to the party conference and that now Miliband wanted to set things straight. To correct the deficit on the deficit.
This time round there were no Gareths, Elizabeths or Beatrices and only one “now, here’s the thing”. This was Miliband at his most sombre, making Labour’s case for economic credibility.
The Tories would be taking us back to the 1930s, he said on Thursday, resisting the temptation to mention Wigan Pier as the BBC had already copyrighted that and he didn’t want to waste money. This 35% solution had exposed the Tories as “extreme, ideological and committed to a dramatic shrinking of the state, whatever the consequences”.
“That is not our programme,” he said. “We start from believing that this country needs a long-term plan.”
The Tories have a long-term economic plan; Labour has a long-term plan. A sure sign that Labour will make the right sort of cuts – of one word. It’s a step in the right direction. That, though, was about as clear as it got.
Miliband mentioned the words sensible, fair, tough and credible several times but stopped short of saying what cuts he would make or when he would achieve them. It would be wrong to make promises on spending before he had his hands on the keys to No 10, he declared, staring down anyone thinking of contradicting him.
“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,” he said.
You can’t really argue with that. Fast forward five years. “I have kept the promise I made to you before the last election. I said I would balance the books and get the debt falling as soon as possible. But you know what? It turned out to be simply not possible.”
There was also wriggle room elsewhere. His government would not be forced into borrowing to spend more but it would be borrowing to invest in infrastructure. It’s a fine distinction.
The Labour leader was rather more convincing when he got to the section on his wealth redistribution plans, such as the introduction of a mansion tax and the abolition of the bedroom tax, but then so he should have been. He has had a lot of practice as he has announced them all several times before.
Sensing his audience might have been expecting rather more from a speech that had come trailed as his big number on the deficit, Miliband started to provide some numbers. He was making five commitments that would together add up to one pledge. It was the new Westminster austerity currency. He was not going to aim for a government surplus; ministerial pay would be capped, police and crime commissioners would be abolished.
More powers and less money would be devolved to local authorities because less was more. Under Labour the 35% would be the 37% state. The Road to Wigan Station.
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