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 Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.