He was always rather under-appreciated, Ed Balls, and it looks now as though – at least within TIGMOO – his star has further to fall.
But it shouldn’t. One rather clever insight of his during the last Parliament was to wonder whether the Office for Budget Responsibility might counteract what he then anticipated would be the critical issue for Labour in 2015: whether it could be trusted with the economy. If an independent OBR were to ‘cost’ Manifestos, and Labour’s ‘stood up’ he might gain ammunition to tackle what he anticipated would be a hostile press. And so he secured a Commons Debate on the proposal.
I wrote about the debate here. But let me give you a short extract:
“The Conservatives’ position – not unsupported by Robert Chote’s letter – was that any change in the OBR’s remit was temporally too proximate to the general election to be implemented. As the then Financial Secretary to the Treasury, Nicky Morgan (who opened the debate for the Coalition) (Column 392) put it:
we are not suggesting that the issues that the shadow Chancellor’s proposals present are insurmountable, but we do believe very firmly that the independence and operation of the OBR is critical. We need to make sure that independence and impartiality is preserved, and as such, Parliament would need time to scrutinise the proposals properly and the OBR still needs time to establish itself fully as an independent fiscal watchdog before being drawn into the political heart of a general election.
So not now, but next time.
Nevertheless, we had the cautious beginnings of a political consensus. And by goodness, the electorate needs it. When the FT, not often Pravda for this sort of agitprop, writes
The deficit policies of both main parties blur into one. Forgetfulness or deceit, it does not matter. When the new government opens the books after the election and the truth comes out, voters will think their new rulers are a bunch of liars who were willing to say anything to get elected. They would be right,
then the hour is surely nigh.
If we are to do more than talk about addressing public cynicism about politics, if politicians are to be incentivised to be straight with the electorate, if we are to fight back against the destructive tribalism that passes for public engagement with Government finances, then it is with measures like this that we must start. Technocratic, apolitical but incredibly important.”
Labour lost the debate.
And – because Balls’ identification of the key battleground appears to have been right – the election. And Ed Balls. And all impetus to continue the push on extending the remit of the OBR.
A pity for Labour and a pity for democracy – the functioning of which could only be enhanced by the electorate having a more acute understanding of what it was being asked to vote for.
Anyway. I mention all of this now because earlier this year George Osborne asked Sir David Ramsden, Chief Economic Adviser to HM Treasury, to conduct a review into the OBR. He looked at a number of issues but, on the costing of manifestos, recommended against an extension.
Perhaps this paragraph of the Report best expressed the core of his reasoning:
But what about the gains for the functioning of democracy? Why so readily dismiss these? The older reader, at this point, turns wearily to the Appendices and the terms of reference. What is it that Sir David was asked to consider?
Ah. Nothing on the prospective gains for the functioning of our democracy.
So. A short elegy.
Note: Sir David’s Report was published in September. That publication passed me by; I learned of it from this blog post, by Simon Wren-Lewis.