Balls and Osborne: the Pot and the Kettle

Watching Ed Balls and George Osborne clawing each other in parliament yesterday was not an edifying spectacle – the parliamentary version of Alien versus Predator.   I’m not one to agree with Osborne about anything if I can possibly help it, but when he condemns the ‘Brownite cabal’ for its economic mismanagement and its failure to regulate the banking system, you have to admit that he’s not wrong.

Of course it’s a point he’s only making to distract attention from his government’s own failings, but then exactly the same can be said be said about Ed Balls’ criticisms of the Coalition.

Balls may or may not have been privy to the Libor interest rate fixing scandal, but whenever I see him furiously attacking government economic policy with that manic gleam in his eye – even when his criticisms are correct – I can’t help feeling that his righteous indignation is somewhat undermined by the fact that when Labour was in office, it was generally doing the exact opposite of what it is now advocating in opposition.

Last month Balls was calling for a growth-led response to the crisis, declaring ‘I’ve said consistently for two years that you can’t do this simply by throwing money at the banks.’

In power, Labour threw massive quantities of money at the banks as part of the bailout programme adopted by Brown and Darling – a case of quid but no quo that the public will be paying for well into the next generation and beyond.    Until the crisis broke,  New Labour demonstrated a desire to please the City of London that was almost plaintive in its eagerness.

On 20 June 2007 Gordon Brown gave a speech to an audience of City bankers and investors which included the following pronouncement:

This an era which history will record as the beginning of a new Golden Age for the City of London, and I want to thank all of you for what you are achieving.

Which pretty much sums up the foresight and wisdom of the man who liberal journalists once routinely praised for his towering intellect and his old Labour credentials.    And his faithful sidekick Ed Balls was no less perspicacious.

Today Balls admits that Labour ‘were not tough enough’ about banking regulation. This doesn’t even begin to describe it.  In his first speech as City minister in 2006, Balls repeatedly attributed the success of the City to the ‘light touch, principles-based regulation’ introduced by his own government.

Balls reassured his listeners of his government’s determination  ‘to safeguard the light touch and proportionate regulatory regime that has made London a magnet for international business’ and promised to ‘ outlaw the imposition of any rules that might endanger the light touch, risk based regulatory regime that underpins London’s success.’

So no Ed, looking back it’s probably fair to say that you weren’t tough enough.   Nor was Labour any more rigorous in overseeing the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) projects which became so crucial to its funding of public services during its three terms in office.

According to the Guardian,  the total cost of the 717 PFI schemes procured by the Labour and Coalition governments will eventually cost the public a staggering total of £300 billion.  In some cases PFI payments will be more than 12 times higher than the cost of the original project.

The majority of these projects were procured by Labour – a fact that was not lost on Margaret Hodge, chair of the Commons public accounts committee, who says

£301bn is a hell of a lot of money.  The irony is that we privatised the buildings but nationalised the debts. It’s crazy.

Indeed it is, and it’s worth meditating on that ‘irony’ for a while.  For Labour, PFI  constituted a useful way of killing two political birds with one stone.    By ensuring that schools and hospitals were rebuilt or refurbished, Labour could demonstrate its commitment to public services to its own left-of-centre core constituency, while avoiding criticisms from the Tories and the rightwing press that it was getting the country into debt.

By ensuring that much of the work was financed by private capital rather than government borrowing – however unfavourable the terms to the taxpayer – Labour was also fulfilling its chosen role as a facilitator for private enterprise.   Never mind the fact that the cost of these schemes was generally much greater in the long term than it would have been if Labour had borrowed the money – politicians rarely pay much attention to the long term.

What matters is the immediate game and the here-and-now.   So we shouldn’t be surprised that Margaret Hodge is criticizing the government for continuing with PFI, just as the Conservatives criticized the PFI schemes when they were in opposition.

Or by the fact that Osborne now blames the Barclays interest-rate fixing on Labour’s ‘light-touch’ banking regulations,  even though he and his party once criticized those same regulations for being too restrictive when he was in opposition.

Because this is how things work, in a democracy whose main political parties will always try to do what powerful financial institutions require of them.

And that is why, for all its seeming sound and fury, the bitter accusations and mutual criticisms in yesterday’s duel of the less-than-titans are not so much due to any real ideological differences, but to the fact that one of them is in office and the other is not.




Tough decisions

I always find it bracing and sort of manly when politicians talk about taking ‘ tough decisions’, as though they’re struggling to repress some inherent sense of decency for the greater good.   Admittedly you don’t feel that with George Osborne. His toughness is the kind of thing one might have expected from some dissolute rake from the Hellfire Club,  pausing to evict starving farm labourers from his father’s estate while riding off to an appointment with the eighteenth century equivalent of Mistress Pain.

All that’s missing is the rouge and the wig, but you can bet there’s a whip around there somewhere.

For Cameron, Osborne & Co, toughness is a genuine pleasure, in a crisis which brings with it the kinds of opportunities to make any Tory free marketeer drool, whether it’s NHS and school privatisations,   taking benefits and even housing from workshy scroungers (or ‘sinners’ as Ian Duncan Smith calls them),  tearing up planning regulations, slashing the ‘bloated’ public sector and cutting away all those superfluous taxpayer-funded accessories such as youth clubs, women’s refuges and ESOL projects for recalcitrant immigrants who don’t even want to integrate.

I’m only surprised at their ability to keep the smirks from  their faces as they keep telling us how bad things are going to be, and how they’re going to ‘stay the course’ when even the IMF is beginning to look askance at the severity of the Coalition’s austerity agenda.

Nick Clegg on the other hand, casts his toughness in a glow of tragic nobility and patriotism,  as he stares at his appointment with destiny with a statesmanlike ‘ I did for the good of the country’  look to justify his participation in one of the most vicious and reactionary governments this country has known for many many years.

When Labour (or is still ‘New’ Labour – I can’t recall) politicians get tough however, there is a pathetic opportunism and naked  electoral calculation in their eagerness to demonstrate that they can be as nasty as the Tories.   On the one hand Labour politicians want to convince the City that they will look after its interests if they get into government,  and attract right-wing votes on issues like benefit fraud and ‘rights and responsibilities’.   At the same time they need  to convince their left-of-centre core constituency that they represent a more progressive and humane alternative to Toryism.

So today, the papers are all flagging up today’s speech from the gimlet-eyed Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, who will tell the Labour Party conference:

[stextbox id=”alert”]”We will never have credibility unless we have the discipline and the strength to take tough decisions.”[/stextbox]

According to the Guardian:

[stextbox id=”alert”]Balls will try to counter claims that his commitment to growth stimulus leaves him blind to the deficit, saying “growth will not magic the deficit away”. He will say: “A steadier, more balanced medium-term plan to get the deficit down will still mean difficult decisions and tough choices in the years ahead that will face any government. Tough choices on tax and spending – like the cuts to welfare, education and Home Office budgets that we set out before the election.” He will also call for discipline in public and private sector pay.[/stextbox]

Ah, those ‘difficult decisions and tough choices’ again.   Makes you wonder how they all sleep at night, doesn’t it?   Except that I doubt very much that  Balls, Osborne and Clegg have much trouble getting their heads down.   Because you can bet your last euro that none of them are likely to feel, or even see, the impact of their ‘tough decisions.’   And their toughness has one thing in common – it will never be directed against bankers, speculators, hedge fund managers.

And behind their posturing attempts to present themselves as paragons of moral courage and responsibility, one can’t help feeling that for all these politicians, conservative, liberal, left-of-centre, these decisions aren’t that tough at all.  They’re really quite easy, and even effortless.