Debts and deficits: are Ed Balls' economic claims sound?

3 September 2010

 Ever since he gained notoriety in 1994 for authoring a speech on "post neoclassical endogenous growth theory", Shadow Education Minister Ed Balls has been recognised as one of the economic heavyweights of New Labour.

As a Special Adviser to former Chancellor Gordon Brown he worked on the first budgets of the previous administration, and after entering the Commons in 2005, his first job in Government was as Economic Secretary to the Treasury.

Now contesting the Labour leadership, Mr Balls' economic policies have come under renewed scrutiny. He has attacked the Coalition Government's Emergency Budget, and questioned the need to reduce the deficit as quickly as is being proposed.

But do the facts and figures he uses to back-up these assertions bear closer inspection?

The Claim

Speaking on this morning's Today Programme, Mr Balls extolled his Government's record on debt management.

He said: "There was no significant structural deficit in the mid part of this decade, we had lower debts than France, Germany, America and Japan."

"By the time we got to the mid-part of this decade, we had lower national debt than we inherited back in 1997," he added

So just how much evidence is there to support the Shadow Education Secretary's positions?

Debts and Deficits

Full Fact contact Mr Balls' team, who pointed us towards Office for National Statistics and Treasury data which measures Public Sector Net Debt, the official measure of 'national debt'.

This would appear to support the Shadow Education Secretary's claim that the levels of debt had improved between 1997, when Labour took office, and 2005.

In 1997, the UK's debt stood at £347.8 billion, 40.1 per cent of GDP. In 2005 the level was £423.9 billion, 33.8 per cent of GDP. So although there has been a growth in the nominal figure owed, once inflation and wider economic growth have been factored in, it is clear that there was a fall in debt as a share of GDP between 1997 and 2005.

The structural deficit however is a separate measure, which records the gap between Government receipts and spending when the economy is operating at its full potential.

The OECD publish comparative data on the budget deficits and surpluses maintained by the world's leading economies, and these figures tell a different story to that offered by Mr Balls.

As the table below show, in 2005 the UK had a budget deficit of 3.3 per cent of GDP. This compares to a 3.6 per cent deficit in the United States, a 2.7 per cent deficit in France and a 2.3 per cent deficit in Germany. Of the countries mentioned by Mr Balls, only Japan had a larger budget deficit, topping 6.5 per cent of GDP.

Whilst the OECD data does show that the countries mentioned by Mr Balls did have higher levels of national debt in 2005, this has historically been the norm. In this context, the impact of the previous Labour Government on national debt is contentious.

As an IFS report assessing the Labour Government's record between 1997 and 2007 noted: "We [the UK] have done less to reduce our structural budget deficit and less to reduce our debt than most other industrial countries since Labour came to office."

A spokesperson for the Institute of Economic Affairs agreed that the picture was more complicated than that proffered by the Shadow Education Secretary.

"By applying the right combination of measures of debt and deficit in nominal and proportional terms you can just about get the figures to say what Ed Balls is saying, but it's a very partial take on the matter," she said.


As Michael Blastland has previously shown on the BBC, the dynamic nature of economics means that it is easy to provide figures to support many (often contradictory) assertions about the health of the public finances.

With selective vision, it is certainly possible to find data to support the claims made by Ed Balls this morning.

However when placed in a full historic and international context, an equally strong argument can be made contrary to this narrative, and it would appear that Mr Balls' comparison of international budget deficits is on particularly shaky ground.

Full Fact fights bad information

Bad information ruins lives. It promotes hate, damages people’s health, and hurts democracy. You deserve better.