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.