Ed Balls
The prime minister said last year that Ed Balls was the "most annoying man in politics". PA

The coalition's efforts to reduce the mountain of public debt received a shot in the arm with a key Labour functionary openly backing a pay freeze for public sector workers.

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls suggested that generating more jobs should come before higher pay for those who are already employed.

Balls told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "I understand the anger in the public and private sectors at that income squeeze but the reality is given the economy failing as it is, that that pay restraint is going to have to continue.

"And if people expect Labour to say 'we'll just oppose', we can't do that. [It] would be irresponsible because the priority has got to be getting people into jobs rather than people being paid more."

Balls' comments came against the backdrop of widespread criticism that Labour lacks a credible economic alternative to reduce deficit. "It would have been tough on pay for any government. It's going to be tougher because of [George] Osborne's mistakes, but I can't promise to reverse that now," Balls told the BBC Radio 4.

A day before, Balls echoed the similar policy in an interview with the Guardian. "It is now inevitable that public sector pay restraint will have to continue through this parliament. Labour cannot duck that reality and won't. There is no way we should be arguing for higher pay when the choice is between higher pay and bringing unemployment down," he told the paper.

Very much on the expected lines, the remarks have sparked sharp reactions from trade unions. According to the BBC, Mark Serwotka, the leader of the Public and Commercial Services union, has termed the policy statement as "hugely disappointing" and even accused Labour of trying to replicate Conservative policies.

"If Labour doesn't want to be the opposition, then where is the opposition going to come from to this government?" Alex Gordon, president of the RMT Union, has been quoted by the BBC as saying.