No, really, George Osborne - here's your plan B

More economists join the revolt against austerity.

"There is no plan B," declared George Osborne in October 2010, as he slashed public spending to reduce the deficit. He promised that the plan would create "a platform for economic stability".

But as time has worn on, and the UK has plunged into a double-dip recession, more and more experts are urging the Chancellor think again. (This week's New Statesman cover story has nine of 20 who signed a letter in support of Osborne rethinking their positions.)

Now, the Guardian has repeated an exercise done by the New Statesman in October last year and asked leading economists what their Plan B would look like. (They asked seven, including Robert Skidelsky. We asked nine, including Robert Skidelsky).

Some of the advice is fairly straightforward - end austerity and stimulate the economy. Here's Joseph Stiglitz in the Guardian:

The good news is, you're not part of the euro. So my first piece of advice would be, don't join! And second, call off the mad austerity. No large economy has ever recovered from a downturn as a result of austerity. It is a certain recipe for exacerbating the recession and inflicting unnecessary pain on the economy.

And here's Paul Krugman:

My message to you is: do the opposite of what you've been doing for the last two years.

As well as simply "change course", many of the economists have offered concrete proposals. Here at the NS, Jeffrey Sachs called for a financial transaction tax:

I am strongly supporting the call for a financial transaction tax, or FTT, which I believe would add efficiency to the global financial system by reducing destabilising speculation (as argued by James Tobin 40 years ago) and by raising revenues fairly from the undertaxed, high-income financial sector. As you know, we have a race to the bottom in the world tax system as the UK, US and others jostle to attract mobile capital.

This race to the bottom in taxation and regulation was one reason that the financial system became dangerously deregulated in the lead-up to 2008. It is also why US corporate tax revenues as a share of GDP are plummeting. US multinational companies are increasingly hiding their profits in the Cayman Islands and other tax havens. All countries have a shared interest in ending these tax havens.

In both publications, Robert Skidelsky calls for a national investment bank, while both Sushil Wadhwani and Steve Keen advocate giving money directly to the public - either in vouchers or cash - to get them spending (think of it as quantitative easing, but more fun). Other suggestions include a recovery fund, a "green new deal" and cuts to VAT and National Insurance. Jonathan Portes advocated lifting the cap on immigration.

Between the two "Plan B" pieces, and the New Statesman cover story this week, the chorus of voices telling George Osborne where he's going wrong - and how he could fix it - should be growing harder to ignore.

Paul Krugman. Photo: Getty Images

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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