Ed Balls wouldn’t reverse anything from Osborne’s Budget

Those hoping that a Labour government would look very different from the current Conservative-led government are likely to be disappointed.

Asked by the Today programme what he would reverse from Osborne's Budget yesterday, Ed Balls replied that there was nothing.

"From yesterday to be honest… there's nothing I'm saying to you from yesterday I would reverse," he said.

How can this be? Under Osborne's plans, there will be an additional £20 billion of cuts to welfare, tax credits and public sector pensions, with overall cuts set to be far larger than anything we have seen over the past five years.

Yesterday the Institute of Fiscal Studies described the scale of Osborne's planned welfare cuts as "unprecedented".  Under Osborne, parts of our social security system will be made almost non-existent.

Just this month, Labour were warning that this would take Britain "back to the 1930s". Now the shadow chancellor is saying it's all fine with him.

So why the change? Well the first reason is that Osborne has rowed back slightly on his austerity plans to head off Labour's attacks. Osborne's cuts will now only be fairly colossal rather than majorly so. The second reason is that there was little genuinely new in the Budget yesterday. Balls today described it as an "empty Budget" adding that: "I don't think it has changed anything." By saying that he wouldn't reverse anything in the budget he was presumably referring only to these new measures.

But even if you just look at the genuinely new measures in the Budget, Balls lack of opposition is remarkable.

Balls said he backed Osborne's new 'Help to Buy Isa', which will pump almost a billion pounds of public money into inflating already ballooning house prices. Faced with unprecedented cuts and a growing housing crisis, the shadow chancellor apparently has absolutely no problem with siphoning off a billion pounds to make that crisis even worse.

And yet Balls' comments expose a deeper problem for Labour. For five years now, they have opposed the government's austerity programme and yet the scale of cuts we have seen this parliament are broadly in line with those planned by Alistair Darling in 2010. Now we head into another election in which Labour is again attacking the Tories for their colossal cuts, while planning similarly colossal cuts themselves.

Now it's true that the Tories' cuts, as they stand, are deeper than Labour's. But given how far Osborne has fallen from hitting his planned cuts during this parliament, it seems highly unlikely be would be any more successful hitting them in the next.

In all likelihood, the scale of cuts under a future Conservative government would probably look broadly similar to the scale of cuts under a future Labour government, with the only real difference being where those cuts would fall. Labour knows this, which is why they have shifted their emphasis to saying they would make "fairer" cuts than the Tories.

But when you have spent the past five years attacking the government for cutting down to the bone, it's hardly an election-winning claim to say that you would only cut down to the gristle. And even if Labour do win the election, the gap between Labour's rhetoric over the past five years, and the reality of the cuts they will make, will immediately make them one of the most unpopular governments in living memory.

Ed Balls' comments today may have been careless, but they exposed a deeper truth about what a future Labour government would look like. It is a truth the party itself have not yet fully woken up to.