It’s been a busy few days for FactCheckers with a flurry of claim and counter-claim from Labour and the Conservatives.
Ed Miliband became the first party leader, in the words of the Daily Mash “to openly threaten the electorate with face-to-face contact” by promising to join Labour activists in knocking on doors between now and the General Election in May.
But he was forced to deny mounting a scare campaign on the NHS after Labour suggested the health service may not survive another five years of Conservative stewardship.
Meanwhile, Tory “big guns” unveiled a Treasury analysis of various Labour policy promises said to add up to more than £20bn of uncosted spending commitments in the first year of the next parliament alone.
Let’s take a look at the biggest claims.
“In the first year office alone, a Labour government would increase borrowing by £20.7bn.”
George Osborne, 5 January 2014
This is based on analysis carried out, controversially, by Treasury civil servants, based on assumptions about Labour’s plans fed to them by Conservative special advisors.
The document basically takes every statement by a Labour frontbencher that sounds like a commitment to spend more money, and attaches an estimated cost to it for the year 2015/16.
There are numerous problems with the Conservative analysis.
It counts out-of-date policy announcements since ruled out by Labour. It treats criticism of coalition cuts as a commitment to reverse those cuts. It makes endless assumptions about the details of supposed Labour policies that are not endorsed by Labour.
The biggest single sum of money in this list – the £3.7bn cost attached to giving the Green Investment Bank new borrowing powers – can probably be dismissed out of hand, since Labour never technically said they would put this in place in 2015/16, as the document itself admits.
What the shadow chancellor Ed Balls has said is that he will stick to coalition spending plans in 2015/16. Any new Labour policies launched in that year will have to be fully funded.
If this is true, the numbers quoted in the Tory analysis become meaningless, although this may not quite be the clear win for Labour that activists are claiming.
The Conservative document does demonstrate that shadow ministers have made a habit of talking up policy aspirations, if not cast-iron promises, that they would not be able to deliver.
In July 2013 Ed Balls was criticing George Osborne for failing to let the Green Investment Bank borrow on the open market, saying “the government should end the current uncertainty and commit now to giving the Green Investment Bank borrowing powers in 2015”.
That sounds very much like the shadow chancellor thought it would be a good idea to give the Green Investment Bank borrowing powers in 2015. But now we are told that this was never official Labour policy.
Perhaps not, but in hindsight it sounds like rather loose talk, not the “iron discipline” Mr Balls was promising at the time.
Similarly, while Harriet Harman railed against cuts to the Arts Council in June 2013, we are told that this was never intended as a commitment to reverse the cuts. So what was the point of criticising them?
Labour have made much today of a recent comparison of the various parties’ spending plans by the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
It’s true that the independent think-tank did say: “Of the main parties, Labour has perhaps been the most cautious of the three in that, at least on the basis of its own costings, it appears to have managed not to announce an overall net giveaway.”
The IFS goes on to say that the Conservatives “have the largest gap between the fiscal tightening implied by their fiscal rule and the specific policies that they have announced so far.
“Their plans currently contain an unspecified 2 per cent of national income fiscal consolidation. The Liberal Democrats have a 0.8 per cent of national income unspecified consolidation, and Labour a 0.6 per cent of national income unspecified consolidation.”
In other words, all three parties have promised that they are going to balance the books during the next parliament, but all have failed to spell out precisely how they are going to do it, to varying degrees. According to the IFS, the Conservative “candour deficit” is the largest.
Labour press office, 4 January 2015
The claim that George Osborne wants to cut spending to levels last seen in the 1930s comes from the Office for Budget Responsibility.
It’s true that spending on public services is forecast to fall to about 35 per cent of GDP in 2019-2020.
But the independent budget watchdog’s numbers were actually pretty nuanced and should probably be quoted in full:
On a different measure, then, real spending on public services per head might only fall to 2003 levels.
That is not to downplay the scale of the cuts. Paul Johnson of the IFS thinks they could change “the role and the shape of the state” beyond recognition.
But clearly, we managed to run an NHS in 2003 and in fact, one Ed Miliband was working at the Treasury around that time.
More importantly, the Conservatives have specifically said that they will protect the NHS budget from the brunt of austerity.
Of course Labour could have a broader point about Conservative competency in running the NHS.
But if someone reading this poster quickly comes away with the message that the Conservatives are planning to cut back public spending to such an extreme degree that Britain will not be able to afford a health service, that is untrue.