IMF: “A plague on both your houses”

Funded stimulus will take real political leadership to pull off.

Yesterday’s IMF country report for the UK had something for everyone in the debate about fiscal policy and growth.

There were two headline conclusions. The first was that evidence from non-eurozone countries suggests that, in the UK, low Gilt yields are an indicator of weak growth prospects. As Jonathan Portes has long argued, they aren’t a market vote of confidence in the Government’s fiscal strategy. So the benefits of Plan A aren’t nearly as great as the Government likes to claim. Loosening up on Plan A would indeed raise the Government’s cost of borrowing, but only because prospects for growth in the private sector would improve. So much for Plan A fundamentalism.

So Plan B it is then? Well not quite. At the same time as challenging the benefits of Plan A, the report’s second conclusion cast doubt on the gains from easing-up on deficit reduction.

The benefits of slowing the pace of the cuts depend upon your view of how the impact of government spending on output varies with the state of the economy. Does a pound of government spending boost GDP by more when output is below its potential – or in a recession - than it does in normal times? The IMF sets out three scenarios.

First, that the timing of spending makes no difference in the long-run. Plan B would therefore be a prescription for lower-intensity pain for longer, while Plan A is more of a short, sharp shock. But in the long-run, the negative impact on the potential of the UK and its workers would be no different under either plan.

Second, it could be that each pound of spending has more impact when output is below its potential, as it is now. In this case slowing the pace of cuts would be a good idea, saving thousands of people from being permanently disadvantaged in the labour market.

Third, it might be that government spending has its greatest impact when the economy is actually shrinking, and less impact when it’s growing. If slower cuts fed through just as growth picked up, then Plan B might even be worse than Plan A on this view.

So for Plan B to be effective, we need to be in the second of these worlds. And a lot of microeconomic evidence strongly suggests that we are. Yet the IMF casts some doubt on that, citing a study that “finds a weak relationship between the output gap and multipliers in the UK”. For the IMF, if not for most labour market economists, the benefits of Plan B are uncertain for the UK (although you might also argue that there’s nothing to lose from trying it).

So we have a situation where Plan B might not cause a panic, but it might also not help. The risks of both plans may be less than their respective opponents claim, but their benefits too may be oversold. So what to do?

In all this discussion of the impact of government spending on output, the IMF, along with most commentators, generally talks in terms of the average effect of government spending. But one thing we know with more certainty is that spending on things like public infrastructure is far more beneficial for output than, say, fiscal incentives for people to lock money away in a pension for 30 years. As I argued in Osborne’s Choice, the composition of government taxation and spending matters far more than most of the macroeconomic debate suggests. That’s why the only way to reduce the damage wrought by a stagnant economy with any certainty is to rejig spending from low- to high-growth areas. And this is an important part of what the IMF proposed yesterday.

The Fund points out that neither Plan A nor Plan B are free lunches. But in economic terms, a funded stimulus is about the cheapest lunch you can get. The catch is that it takes real political leadership to pull it off. The growth crisis demands nothing less.

Ian Mulheirn is Director of the Social Market Foundation.

Ian Mulheirn is the director of the Social Market Foundation.

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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.