Deja vu? Balls says it will take Labour ‘years’ to sort out coalition’s mess

It will take Labour years to sort out the economic mess created by the coalition government, Ed Balls warned today.

The comment might spark a bit of déjà-vu in readers, given it is strikingly similar to the message the coalition government has been promoting since it came to power in 2010.

"Even if the government were to implement Labour's growth plan now, given the failure of the last three years it would not avoid the need for cuts in departmental spending in the next parliament," Balls said during a speech in London today.

"It will take years to sort out George Osborne's fiscal mess

"And the longer the government carries on with these failing policies, the bigger the challenge will be for the next Labour government."

The comments raise the prospect of a post-2015 Labour government spending its time in office blaming most of its economic difficulties on the coalition, in much the same way that David Cameron and Nick Clegg do now.

But Balls was quick to shut down the recurring coalition argument that the deficit is the result of Labour over-spending.

"Do I think the last Labour government was profligate, spent too much, had too much national debt? No, I don't think there's any evidence for that," he said.

The Balls speech also showed Labour is willing to make some inroads towards winning back the public's faith in its economic responsibility, with a pledge to take away winter fuel payments from wealthy pensioners.

The policy is designed to make the party look more responsible than the Tories, who are clinging tothe universal payment despite debate within the party.

While pledging to scrap the benefit might help Labour win back some economic credibility it is a potentially dangerous manoeuvre politically.

Many Labour supporters will be deeply uncomfortable with the end of the principle of universal benefits, while older voters – a reliable demographic on polling day – are likely to turn away from the party.

"We believe the winter fuel allowance provides vital support for pensioners on middle and low incomes to combat fuel poverty," Balls added.

"That's why we introduced it in the first place.

"But in tough economic times we have to make difficult choices. It can no longer be a priority to continue paying the winter fuel allowance to the wealthiest pensioners."

The shadow chancellor refused to divulge too many details of the party's economic policy proposals so far ahead of a general election, but he announced the creation of Labour spending teams to prepare reports on a 'zero-based' assessment of departmental spending.

"The Labour Treasury team will work with spending teams to identify savings and switches for 2015-16 to reflect Labour's priorities and report before our manifesto," he said.

Balls specifically mentioned the provision of public services by voluntary groups and private sector firms during the speech, suggesting Labour is not planning on rowing back on all the coalition's efforts if it wins the general election.