UK Politics

Labour conference: What Balls isn't sorry about

  • 26 September 2011
  • From the section UK Politics
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Ed Balls playing football with journalists
Balls' side lost 3-2 to the team of political journalists

To see Ed Balls on the football pitch is to see the shadow chancellor as most people do see him - determined, aggressive and almost obsessively competitive.

All the more surprising then to hear him on the Today programme this morning saying sorry, not once but twice.

"The banking crisis was a disaster. All around the world the banks behaved irresponsibly, but regulation wasn't tough enough. We were part of that. I'm sorry for that mistake, I deeply, deeply regret it... What we failed around the world to see was the scale of those risks. I'm sorry about that."

Having sounded abject about Labour's failure to regulate the banks, he then added:

"It's also the case we made some mistakes in other areas - of course we didn't spend every pound of public money well."

Listen hard, though, and you will have noticed what he was not apologising for - spending too much public money before the banking crisis.

There will be no apology for that because, not only is he not sorry about it, he doesn't believe it to have been the case and is also determined not to give his enemies the sound bite they crave.

Indeed, the Labour leadership have come up with a sound bite of their own on spending - "Building schools and hospitals did not create the deficit."

Banks' debts

That is the context for today's promises of spending discipline.

Ed Balls will promise that, as chancellor, he'd have "tough fiscal rules" but he won't say what they'd be (much more significant is his concession that they would be judged independently and not by him as they were when he was last in the Treasury).

He will say that Labour cannot reverse every cut or tax rise (to claim otherwise would be absurd).

He will back the reform of public-sector pensions (though not the increased contributions the government is demanding).

He will pledge to use the money raised by selling off the government's bank shares for paying down debt (an announcement designed to turn up the heat on the coalition who dream of using the money to pay for share giveaways or tax cuts).

Ed Balls didn't, and won't, say sorry for spending too much money when Labour was in government because he isn't.

What's more, he believes that Labour's economic credibility will be restored not by admitting what the party got wrong in the past but by being seen to be right about the future.

He believes that the country may be about to realise that the biggest economic problem it faces is lack of growth, not the deficit.

He is determined to present himself as the man with the plan to put that right.

Tellingly he accused the prime minister and the chancellor of suffering from "false consciousness" - a Marxist concept meaning that people are unable to see things as they really are.

That is the battle now in British politics - not who is sorry but who has the right diagnosis about why we're in the mess we're in.

PS. On the radio I quoted what David Miliband would have said in his first leader's speech if he, and not his brother, had been elected.

The Guardian got a leak of the speech which said that "step one" in recovering public trust over the economy was "to recognise what is obvious: that we did not abolish the business cycle. We should never have claimed it. You can't in a market economy. And public spending plans cannot depend on it. Nor can you write your own fiscal rules, and then be judge and jury for how they are calculated and when they are met."

Balls says he agrees with every word.

Update: Here is my report for the News at Ten on Ed Balls' speech.