We could fix our economy by giving every man, woman and child £6,000 in cash

It's hard to believe in the economy's so-called recovery when 2.5m remain unemployed and 1.5m are stuck in part-time jobs because they can't find full-time work. So how do we get growth beyond the Square Mile?

Have you heard the good news? The economy is “turning a corner”. Growth is back. Green shoots abound. Hurrah! Forget that this is the slowest recovery in a century; forget that George Osborne promised us 7.7 per cent growth three years ago and yet we’ve had less than 3 per cent. Ignore the 2.5 million people who are still unemployed and the 1.5 million people who are stuck in part-time jobs because they can’t find full-time work. Turn a blind eye to the longest squeeze on workers’ incomes since the 1870s, to the 500,000 people who have been forced to visit food banks in the past year.

OK, you get my drift. To talk of a “recovery” is self-serving spin from the discredited austerians. If you want to see “green shoots”, you’ll have to head for the City of London. Bonuses there are up 64 per cent, while RBS and Lloyds are enjoying combined half-year profits of £3.5bn.

So how do we get growth beyond the Square Mile? Forget fiscal stimuli. Yes, Labour’s proposed VAT cut would boost demand – but by less than 1 per cent of GDP. Forget monetary stimuli. Interest rates have stood at a record low of 0.5 per cent since March 2009.

Then there is quantitative easing (QE), in which the Bank of England, according to the official explanation on its website, “electronically creates new money and uses it to purchase gilts from private investors such as pension funds and insurance companies . . . [This] lowers longer-term borrowing costs and encourages the issuance of new equities and bonds to stimulate spending.”

We have had a massive £375bn of QE so far, which may have saved the financial sector but has done very little for the rest of us. According to the Bank of England, 40 per cent of the gains from QE since 2009 have gone to the richest 5 per cent of households. “QE is a policy designed by the rich for the rich,” says Nigel Wilson, the chief executive of Legal & General.

There is, however, a way of using QE money in a bolder, much more daring way. It’s called “quantitative easing for the people”, or QEP.

QE of £375bn amounts to around £6,000 per man, woman and child in the UK. So why not electronically add this to the current accounts of every member of the public? Why not give the QE money directly to ordinary people to spend, save or pay off their debts? Wouldn’t it be better to inject new money into the real economy, rather than the City of London (where it usually sits unused, unspent, unlent, in bank vaults)?

QEP, incidentally, isn’t my idea. It’s Steve Keen’s. A professor of economics at the University of Western Sydney, Keen was one of only a handful of economists to have warned of the dangers of a financial crisis, several years before Lehman Brothers imploded in 2008.

QEP might elicit snorts of derision from the inflation hawks and deficit scolds, not to mention lazy references to hyperinflation and Weimar Germany, but it isn’t quack economics. Far from it. Remember the freemarket economist Milton Friedman, a hero to Thatcher and Pinochet, who said that downturns could be fought by “dropping money out of a helicopter”?

And remember his liberal-left rival John Maynard Keynes, who called for the Treasury to “fill old bottles with banknotes” and then bury them for people to find, dig up and spend?

QEP bypasses the tired and stale debate over austerity. Having the Bank of England hand over cash directly to consumers would boost aggregate demand without adding a penny to the national debt.

What’s not to like? Well, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, right? Wrong. There is if you’re a banker or a bond trader. The question is: why use QE money to bail out the masters of the universe rather than members of the public?

It’s a taboo topic, I guess. QEP is, in the words of the veteran economics commentator Anatole Kaletsky, formerly of the Times and now of Reuters, “too controversial for any policymaker to mention publicly”. Only a handful of pundits, such as Kaletsky and the Guardian’s Simon Jenkins, have so far dared to discuss the option of QEP. Kaletsky refers to “citizens’ dividends”, Jenkins to “people’s bonuses”.

It’s still a tough sell. Ever since Liam Byrne, the outgoing Labour chief secretary to the Treasury, left behind his now notorious note in May 2010 – “I’m afraid there is no money,” he joked – the austerians have pretended that the UK is broke, bust, bankrupt. In a speech in March, David Cameron declaimed that there’s “no magic money tree” to fund what he dismissively described as “ever more wishful borrowing and spending”.

This is the big lie of the debate over growth and deficits. Don’t take my word for it. Or Keen’s. A briefing document published by George Osborne’s Treasury to coincide with the Budget in March noted how: “It is theoretically possible for monetary authorities to finance fiscal deficits through the creation of money. In theory, this could allow governments to increase spending or reduce taxation without raising corresponding financing from the private sector.”

The Treasury agrees: there is a money tree – and it isn’t magical. It’s called QE and it can, if we so choose, be deployed to support households, not banks; to encourage spending, not hoarding. QEP isn’t just doable: in an age of collapsing living standards, it’s vital.

It would also be revolutionary. To borrow a line often attributed to Henry Ford: “It is well enough that people of the nation do not understand our banking and monetary system, for if they did, I believe there would be a revolution before tomorrow morning.”

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the political director of the Huffington Post UK, where this article is cross-posted

Economic growth can't only be focused on London's financial district. Image: Getty

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.