UK Politics

Labour conference: Balls steering clear of promises

Ed Balls speaks to the Labour conference
Image caption Ed Balls knows it is a long time until the next general election

Labour has a new golden rule: no spending promises.

If you thought you heard Ed Balls pledge to cut VAT on home improvements or bring forward investment projects in his conference speech, listen again.

He did nothing of the sort.

Those were not Labour policies, they were - in his words - "immediate steps" the current government should take.

He made the point in a newspaper interview and then from the conference platform: "No matter how much we dislike particular Tory spending cuts or tax rises, we cannot make promises now to reverse them."

That is an important political message; a key part of trying to build the party's economic credibility.

It is also one with big implications for the opposition.

'Not committed'

Labour's statements - past, present and future - need to be viewed in that light.

When Ed Balls told Newsnight that if you want to get the economy moving "you reinstate Building Schools for the Future", that was not a commitment to reinstate the programme.

When Ed Miliband said he was "against the changes that the government is making to child benefit", he was not promising to reintroduce the benefit to the higher rate payers who will lose it from 2013.

When the shadow education secretary Andy Burnham described scrapping the Education Maintenance Allowance as an "all-out attack on the aspirations of those who have least", he was not promising to bring it back.

Opposing is not promising.

Labour can point out they are not reversing pledges; they never committed to do any of those things.

Mr Miliband's party is helped here by a coalition policy. Fixed-term parliaments, now written into law, mean Labour can say with confidence a general election is three and a half years away and argue it would be irresponsible to set spending plans now.

Shadow debate

They might also contend suggestions like those made by Mr Balls represent a constructive approach to opposition.

On the economy there is a shadow debate taking place.

Labour sets out ideas it says would grow the economy if implemented now. The Conservatives cost and critique them, saying they demonstrate the party - and Mr Balls in particular - lack credibility.

The debate is a vital one for any opposition, and likely to be central to the outcome of the next election, but its substance centres on what Labour would do if they took power tomorrow, not what they might do after the next scheduled election date.

Journalists are already suggesting to Mr Balls that however much he reflects the pain of those he says are suffering because of government cuts, he cannot commit to giving them any help.

Labour candidates on the doorstep may fulminate about the closure or curtailing of local services, but they cannot tell residents those services would be returned if they won an election.

Perhaps most importantly, some voters may be under the false impression that Labour has made promises that never existed.

It may not always be like this.

Mr Balls says his party cannot make promises "now" to reverse cuts. Labour may start releasing manifesto pledges on tax and spending much nearer the election.

Until then, voters might be well advised to distinguish Labour's policies and their suggestions.