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.

Lindsey Parnaby / Getty
Show Hide image

The public like radical policies, but they aren't so keen on radical politicians

Around the world, support for genuinely revolutionary ideas is strong, but in the UK at least, there's less enthusiasm for the people promising them.

You’re probably a getting a little bored of the litany of talking head statistics: trust in elected officials, parliament, the justice system and even democracy itself has been falling steadily for years and is at record lows. Maybe you’ve seen that graph that shows how people born after 1980 are significantly less likely than those born in 1960 to think that living in a democracy is ‘essential’. You’ve possibly heard of the ‘Pasokification’ of the centre-left, so-named the collapse of the once dominant Greek social democratic party Pasok, a technique being aggressively pursued by other centre-left parties in Europe to great effect.    

And so, goes the logic, there is a great appetite for something different, something new. It’s true! The space into which Trump et al barged leaves plenty of room for others: Beppe Grillo in Italy, Spanish Podemos, Bernie Sanders, Jean Luc Melanchon, and many more to come.

In my new book Radicals I followed movements and ideas that in many cases make someone like Jeremy Corbyn seem positively pedestrian: people who want to dismantle the nation state entirely, use technology to live forever, go off grid. All these ideas are finding fertile ground with the frustrated, disillusioned, and idealistic. The challenges of coming down the line – forces of climate change, technological change, fiscal crunch, mass movements of people – will demand new types of political ideas. Radical, outsider thinking is back, and this does, in theory at least, offer a chink of light for Corbyn’s Labour.

Polling last week found pretty surprising levels of support for many of his ideas. A big tax on high earners, nationalising the railways, banning zero hours contracts and upping the minimum wage are all popular. Support for renewable energy is at an all-time high. According to a recent YouGov poll, Brits actually prefer socialism to capitalism, a sentiment most strongly held among younger people.

There are others ideas too, which Corbyn is probably less likely to go for. Stopping benefits entirely for people who refuse to accept an offer of employment is hugely popular, and in one recent poll over half of respondents would be happy with a total ban on all immigration for the next two years. Around half the public now consistently want marijuana legalised, a number that will surely swell as US states with licenced pot vendors start showing off their dazzling tax returns.

The BNP effect used to refer to the problem the far-right had with selling their ideas. Some of their policies were extremely popular with the public, until associated with the BNP. It seems as though the same problem is now afflicting the Labour brand. It’s not the radical ideas – there is now a genuine appetite for those who think differently – that’s the problem, it’s the person who’s tasked with delivering them, and not enough people think Corbyn can or should. The ideal politician for the UK today is quite possibly someone who is bold enough to have genuinely radical proposals and ideas, and yet appears extremely moderate, sensible and centrist in character and temperament. Perhaps some blend of Blair and Corbyn. Sounds like an oxymoron doesn’t it? But this is politics, 2017. Anything is possible.

Jamie Bartlett is the head of the Violence and Extremism Programme and the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

0800 7318496