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The reason why people laugh at Ed Balls

Further to my CentreRight earlier today here, the reason why people laugh at Ed Balls has little do with either his name or his stammer.  (See his Daily Mirror piece here.)

If you want to know it is, please turn to his article in this morning's Daily Telegraph here.

Balls' case is -

1) Raising VAT is wrong, because "VAT is the only tax that everyone has to pay, even if they are unemployed or pensioners, and because it hits couples with the children the hardest.  It is always the least fair option for raising tax".

2) The Conservatives plan "massive" spending cuts.  They will "use inflated fears of a debt and monetary crisis to justify massive public spending cuts and an increase in VAT; blame it all on Labour's management of the economy; and use the resulting war chest to cut income tax before the next election".

3) Labour has to be "clear about the need to reduce the deficit".  However, "we must urge that it is done steadily, fairly and in a way that doesn't put economic recovery at risk.  That is why we pre-announced our plans to raise national insurance and the top rate of income tax alongside efficiency savings".

4) Labour should have ruled out raising VAT before the election.  "I believe increasing VAT is plain wrong and during the election we should have said that loud and clear."

5) Labour should now either support or oppose a VAT rise.  "...to avoid taking a principled stand, either for or against a rise, and to remain silent on the issue, would repeat the mistake we made at the election, even if the money markets do applaud George Osborne for raising VAT".

All this gives rise to the following questions -

1) If Labour makes a "principled stand" for a VAT rise in the budget (assuming such an increase takes place), how is this consistent with a VAT rise being "plain wrong"?

2) If Labour makes a "principled stand" against a VAT rise in the budget, can it explain why it didn't rule out such an increase before the election?

3) Who's to blame for Labour's failure to make such a "principled stand" before the election?  Is it Alistair Darling, against whom the "forces of hell" were famously unleashed?  (And who unleashed those forces, by the way?)

4) Since Labour "has to be clear about the need to reduce the deficit", would Balls, as Labour leader, set out any spending cuts to help do so?  If so, what are they, and why aren't they mentioned in his article?

5) Since raising national insurance and the top rate of tax alone wouldn't substantially reduce the deficit, would Balls, as Labour leader, set out any other tax rises to help to do so?  If so, what are they, and why aren't they mentioned in his article?

I admire Balls' brains (yes: he's bright), his energy, his determination, and the way he's adapted to opposition better than any of his front bench colleagues - setting vigorously about trying to beat up Michael Gove (see, for example, here and here).

His piece may or may not help his leadership campaign.  But I just don't see how it helps his wider credibility.

If he'd unambiguously recommended opposing any VAT rise in the budget, the piece would have been tactically smart, strategically dubious. (Because such a stance raises the question: what tax would you raise instead?)  None the less, it would have at least have been forward-looking.

Instead, it doesn't make a recommendation at all - and is thus tactically confused, strategically incomprehensible.  And it isn't even forward-looking: the Telegraph's headline - "Labour lost by failing on VAT" - reflects this.

As Danny Finkelstein noted here, the most difficult question for Conservatives in elections is: what spending will you cut?  And the most difficult for Labour is: what taxes will you hike?

At the next election, David Cameron will be looking to re-run the "tax bombshell" campaign of 1992 - with which he was intimately involved in the Conservative Research Department. He can hum the tune off by heart. He knows the words without fail.

Until or unless Labour can close the question down and head the campaign off, its chances of winning next time are substantially reduced.  And unless or until Balls grasps this, one can't help viewing him as a great comic creation.

Paul Goodman