Our problem is no longer unwillingness to spend on infrastructure, it's inability

Outsourcing government policy since 2010

As my colleague George Eaton wrote this morning, the political top-line from the government's announcement of a £50bn infrastructure program is that it signals a gruff acceptance of Keynesian economics:

The delusion that the coalition's spending cuts would increase consumer confidence and produce a self-sustaining private-sector-led recovery has been abandoned after Osborne's "expansionary fiscal contraction" turned out to be, well, contractionary.

But getting wonkish about it, there is something interesting buried in all this about how the government has chosen to execute this volte-face. Rather than simply borrow the money – at interest rates so low that it would basically be paid to do so – it has announced that it will guarantee the private loans of any company which fulfils certain requirements.

Doubtless part of the reason is political. This way, the government can confidently state that they aren't adding anything to the deficit, even though this way of borrowing is functionally identical to doing it the standard, on-the-books way. But part of it will be because infrastructure investment is really hard.

According to the FT:

To qualify for the new guarantees, projects must be ready to start in the 12 months from the offer being made and Treasury officials say they will be monitored to ensure they would not have gone ahead in any case.

The thing is, there just aren't that many shovel-ready projects simply lying around the place, and certainly not big flashy ones. Although the government is proclaiming that the Thames tunnel, the Mersey Gateway toll bridge and the A14 road widening in Cambridge could all be helped with the money, it's usually more mundane things which are the easiest use of infrastructure spending. Forget high-speed rail and airport islands, and focus on sewers and road resurfacing.

Unfortunately, its relatively tricky to spend £50bn on sewers in a year. Thames Water is replacing all the Victorian Water mains in London, but its taking 5 years and costing £5bn. To do it any faster would risk chaos in the streets. And noteably, they had already started that program without the governments money. That's going to be true of a lot of the low-level infrastructure investments that would otherwise be ripe for targeted spending.

So the government needs ideas. And what better way to get them than to offload the generating of them to the private sector? It's no longer just a government outsourcing based on ideology. It's now a government outsourcing because it has literally no idea how to enact policy it desperately wants to.

Osborne knows what it means to be Keynesian, but doesn't know how to do it. If you think you do, why not bid for his money?

The Thames tunnel, one of the proposed uses of the infrastructure money. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.