In yesterday’s debate, George Osborne had a clear script, Ed Balls didn’t

by Jonathan Todd

“It was just like a budget”. This was the immediate reaction of the ever perceptive Nigel Lawson when the Daily Politics sought it soon after the Autumn statement. Ming Campbell – the only other participant on a very balanced panel – concurred. That said; they had a point. Not only was the stagecraft familiar. The content was too.

The Conservatives have a script, you see. China is rising but the skivers aren’t, so further welfare reform is needed to prevent China eating all our dinners. The global race will be won by strivers, not drunken layabouts. And reform of our schools will create a nation of strivers. That’s if Johnny Foreigner and his euro don’t do what the last government and our “mess” could not quite do and do for us good and proper.

This script has been obvious since Conservative party conference. It has, in its own parlance, stayed the course. It is no surprise, therefore, that it was served up again yesterday. That’s the thing with political scripts. Politicians disembark on one that feels right, feelings which polling confirms. Then they keep saying it and saying it and saying it some more. Finally, maybe, it hits home with the electorate. By which time, certainly, they have bored themselves and the lobby into a stupor.

It was never really in doubt, consequently, what Osborne’s key messages would be. Any sentient political observer should have long known. We know its villains: the last government and the bed we made; welfare recipients and the beds that they lie in; the rest of Europe and their siesta.

But Osborne’s heroes shun and abhor all such lazy, flabby, debt-sodden indulgence. It is the strivers that have doubled exports to major emerging economies since 2009 and created over a million jobs in the private sector since he became chancellor.

Politics is the ceaseless clash of narratives: many half-baked, most never reaching a real terminus but the endless grafting of perceptions unto realities. So, what story did Ed Balls tell in rebutting this tale of striving heroes and shirking villains?

He stuttered at first. And the government benches jeered a man known to have a stutter. Such, such are the edifying joys of the Commons.

We had to suspend our disbelief at the cruel and spineless pit to which the great crucible of our democracy had fallen. But beyond this we could see that the government didn’t have enough good news to say everything was going to plan but had sufficient to take the sting out of Labour’s default attack line of “too far, too fast”.

Where does Labour go when so diminished?

The reality of a slowly improving economy is part of what caused me to argue that Labour will only win the economic argument when we make it about the future. Balls seems to agree, having written in the Evening Standard earlier this week that:

“Instead of a backward-looking debate about who was right and wrong in 2010, I think (families and pensioners) want to know how we can get our economy moving again, boost living standards and build a better future.”

This agreement between me and Balls, though, doesn’t amount to a forward-looking script. It just means we both think Labour needs one.

Politics, painted as it is in broad strokes, is a canvass on which a clear but poorly evidenced script can triumph over a less well formed but potentially more strongly evidenced script. Osborne’s well-spun half-truth can overpower Balls’ unvarnished truth.

This truth will unravel and be better understood as the details of the Autumn statement are picked over in coming days and weeks. This does not really detract, however, from Labour’s need for a stronger script that is forward looking and will resonate in a cautiously improving economy.

Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist

Tags: , , , , ,

14 Responses to “In yesterday’s debate, George Osborne had a clear script, Ed Balls didn’t”

  1. DonGately says:

    there is a script available here – balls has already even started to edge towards it with his remarks that many in poverty are in work

    the script should be about how strivers do strive but the system doesn’t reward this whilst those who gain the most aren’t the benefit cheats but the wealthy. The majority of families in poverty are in work. Benefits aren’t just paid to the feckless but to the hard working and are a way to fix a broken system where rewards don’t follow efforts. This shows Osborne’s arguments to just be a lie – you get into work to support your family and still you may need help from a food bank – and if you’re in the middle this life isn’t so far away from you. If you were to lose your job or have to settle for less well paid work would you really feel osborn’s on your side? Might you also have to go to a food bank because the support that was there now isn’t.

    To properly articulate this view though balls will have to upset some on the left by setting the working poor and struggling middle apart from the poor without work – this would recall the way brown and blair managed the debate on benefits and many in the party were uncomfortable with this. Fact is this is where the political centre is.

    In govt you get to set the economic baselines and the territory for any debate. Osborne has built his narrative on the issue of strivers – and these are people who the coalition are failing rather than supporting. Labour should have a better message for this group who may even start to feel nostalgic previous labour policy for working families but if the labour welfare debate is focused on support for those who can’t work (and don’t get me wrong – coalition policy is shameful in the way the most vulnerable are being stripped of support) they’ll be leaving the strivers to osborn and that weakens the coalition of voters labour will need to win

  2. Nig L says:

    Only one problem with Balls saying people are interested in looking forward not looking back. He hasn’t apologized for the mess he created and the policies he is promoting now are exactly the same. Therefore we do look back because it is a clear indication of what will happen if his turn comes round again.

  3. Barry says:

    “He stuttered at first. And the government benches jeered a man known to have a stutter. Such, such are the edifying joys of the Commons”.

    This is somewhat ingenuous. The Government benches laughed not because he is known to have a stutter, but because he said the opposite of what he’d intended to. Just as earlier the Commons had laughed when the Prime Minister referred to “his house” rather than “this House”.

    As for the Chancellor’s script, it was far less frenetic than the rhetoric Gordon Brown used to pump out when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. Incidentally, where is he now?

  4. naeth says:

    Of course Osborne set a number of very good traps for Balls, do you support us if not what would you do, tell us.

    Of course Balls is not going to do that yet or if he does at all, the deathly silence from labour on welfare was obvious, because if labour had said anything then Osborne would have asked well do you support this because you started it.

    The Tories did what Brown had done numerous times set a well planed trap

  5. Mark says:

    “…jeered a man known to have a stammer…”

    So known stammerers should be heard in respectful silence not afforded to others? Commons debates are hardly ever edifying, but it has to be the same rules for all, and even the Commons has a basic sense of decency, as shown by how Ann Clywd’s question at PMQs was received yesterday.

    The jeering started when Ed Balls says “the deficit is not rising”. He didn’t stammer, he just didn’t say what he meant to, though what he said appears to be true. The problem was that he *did* have a script yesterday, but one that was predicated on an assumption the deficit was rising.

    The main problem is that Ed Balls is a symbol in the public’s eye of how the country got into debt, and any time he speaks on the matter he can easily be reminded of the fact, and of his deficit denial. Ed M needs to replace him well in advance of the election.

  6. BenM says:

    “A cautiously improving economy”.

    I wonder if we’ll be back here next year repeating the same old arguments, shocked yet again at just how badly this chancellor is missing his targets.

    I confidently predicted the double dip after Osborne’s Spending Review, but I didn’t expect the malaise to last so long, nor have such a chronic impact on the UK’s economy.

    Things are really bad. And all this chancellor and his Tory chums can do is pillory those on lower incomes or who are out of work who played no part in making it so.

    There is a once-in-a-lifetime chance for Labour to remould the economic conversation and to lift it above the petty, vindictive Tory scapegoating of the workless and poor.

    It will take courage, the siren calls (including from this blog) will be to capitulate to an agenda that not only demeans us all, but damages us economically too. For without welfare, the banking crash and Tory double dip would have turned into a catastrophic economic meltdown. And Labour would be right to make that point.

    There will need to be an educated guess at what the poll hit might be, as the Tories and the press lackeys pile on with their shirker rhetoric, but nevertheless, the Tories are now dangling in the wind, waiting to be finished off by events now utterly out of their control.

  7. Dominic says:

    The challenge for Labour is to find an easily-gettable analogy for the economy that improves on the daft household budget model deployed by the Tories. But what is that analogy?

  8. Balls did not stutter. He said the wrong thing. Yes, he has a stutter, but he did not stutter. This is just an(other) attempt to deflect from the fact that Balls still denies having any hand in the appalling economic state of the country. Given that he was Chief Economic Adviser at the Treasury for many years, what was he doing during that time, if he had nothing to do with the economy.

    That ANYONE is prepared to vote Labour again with Balls in there (never mind Cooper, and Ms. Equality & Diversity Harman) suggests that we are in the throes of a collective death wish.

    RIP UK, died of being completely and utterly FUBAR.

  9. “In govt you get to set the economic baselines and the territory for any debate. Osborne has built his narrative on the issue of strivers – and these are people who the coalition are failing rather than supporting. Labour should have a better message for this group”

    But Labour failed the strivers as well – I was one of the first to be dragged into 40% tax thanks to Brown’s fiscal drage. Then, 11% NI meant the state was getting more than half of my £37k pa not that many years back. Then he set about my pension, adding another few per cent on to that 51%. Then I was made redundant, and he doubled the tax rate I was paying. Really, I might just as well have been an ATM for Brown and Balls. Now, working piecemeal, I make bloody sure that the state doesn’t get a penny from me.

  10. adrian clarke says:

    Balls was struggling because he only has one answer ,which he dare not state in Parliament.That is “spend,spend, spend”He dare not admit that ,that means, “borrow,borrow,borrow”and is a repeat of why we are in the mess we are in.Osborne is borrowing more than he wants but the debt is going down. Unfortunately,Labour have no credible answer because they detest the private sector,yet it is only from there that recovery can come

  11. Seymour says:

    ..He stuttered at first. And the government benches jeered a man known to have a stutter. Such, such are the edifying joys of the Commons…

    This statement is factually incorrect.
    Why write something that isn’t true? Are you trying to avoid the obvious that Balls ballsed it up?

  12. Ray_North says:

    The fact that Ed Balls didn’t put on a very good performance at the dispatch box is pretty close to irrelevant – the most important thing that happened on Wednesday was that the Chancellor made a statement that displayed that he has completely messed up the economy and jeopardised the way of living of millions of people.
    After a couple of days reflection – we’ve analysed the politics and economics of the AS – in the following article:

  13. Vern says:

    In general everyone has a script and Balls doesn’t. If ever there was man who was way out of his depth it is Ed Balls. Liam Byrne, a close second. Milliband (E), same sort of thing.
    We need credible alternatives in our political parties, not individuals who are into simple point scoring rants.
    Politics needs to mature very quickly- its embarassingly child like at times.

    A full overhaul is what i would favour, ditch the Lords, ditch all the outdated pomp-break down the barriers and lets have real transparency in place of the tailored approach currently preffered.

  14. Keith says:

    Labour will not win with Balls at the treasury. He is completely identified with all that was wrong with New Labour.

Leave a Reply