Learning the right lessons from Labour's economic record

Neither Labour nor the Coalition is willing to ask why Britain's tax base was so fragile.

You might think the one thing the world doesn't need right now is yet another instant history about the Labour years. But here one comes -- this time, though, with a difference. The authors certainly won't be dining out on the royalties and there's no insider gossip or "he said, she said" revelations about rows in Downing St. Which is perhaps one reason why it's worth reading; it says something serious about what did and didn't happen to economic performance during the Labour years.

It is authored by John Van Reenen from the LSE -- one of Britain's leading economists, and something of a guru on productivity and growth; together with Dan Corry, a seasoned and respected economic advisor from the former Labour government, and someone not averse to being contrary and defying the conventional view of the day.

Their central argument is that the 2.8 per cent a year productivity growth achieved between 1997 and the start of the 2008 recession was impressive in both historical and international terms; rooted in substantive improvements in a number of sectors, rather than relying on the frothy gains from financial services; and arose in part due to policy choices -- particularly investment in research and science, strong competition policy, expansion of higher education and gains in skills. Their argument is as unfashionable as it is empirically substantiated.

Above all it is an attempt to rebalance the current economic debate about the Labour years, a first (and no doubt doomed) effort at taking on those who assert that there was little more to the Labour era than an attempt to surf the wave of public and private debt over which it presided. This puts the authors at odds with the swelling ranks on left and right who wish to portray Labour's economic strategy as little more than a Faustian pact with the City: light regulation in return for growing tax-revenues. The report, of course, concedes financial regulation was a failure, but contends that wider economic policy made a real and positive difference to a range of sectors -- a point that is currently in danger of being completely over-looked.

Nor do the authors just make an argument about the past -- they also seek to pick a fight about the future. Entering the fray of the current economic debate, they refute the "supply-side pessimists" who assert there is no scope for any further stimulus on the basis that the productive potential of the economy has already fallen (which if true would mean that further expansionary policy would be counter-productive). In contrast, the LSE report contends there is plenty of spare capacity, it just requires some form of Plan B to ensure it is utilised. In truth, however, the authors are most interested in advocating a Plan V, as they term it, for long term growth involving a more muscular and far-sighted industrial policy.

For all the cogency of their arguments on productivity -- and let's hope someone in Whitehall is taking note about the insights offered about the real sources of growth -- there are some puzzling omissions and assertions. Little is said about the UK's ongoing trade imbalances. There is no investigation of the weakening link between GDP growth and the gains going to low-to-middle income Britain, and the associated wage stagnation that took hold in the years preceding the recession -- a phenomena that Labour in office failed to grasp. When you reach the end of the report you don't have much of a sense of the policy agenda that would lift the prospects of the millions of low and modestly paid workers employed in Britain's vast low-skill, low-productivity sectors. The authors, like so many others, focus their attention on what can be done to improve the industrial vanguard, rather than the laggards.

And when it comes to the record on public finances, they choose to pin-point blame on Labour's record on overall public debt, saying it got too high pre-recession. This seems like an odd argument to select given that the UK's debt was relatively low compared to others. A better target would have been Labour's projections for tax receipts -- together with the wisdom of running modest deficits in the middle of the last decade, in a period of steady growth when modest surpluses would have been more prudent.

But even this criticism is dwarfed by the real argument which neither Labour nor the Coalition wants to make as it doesn't fit their favoured narratives -- which is to ask why Britain's tax base was so fragile, crumbling so dramatically, during the recent recession in a way that those in other countries didn't. Indeed, after several years of intense focus on the need to "stress test" banks to ensure their balance sheets could stand up to future financial shocks, it is remarkable that there is no equivalent debate about the sort of tax-base the modern British state needs if it is to better withstand global turbulence in the decades ahead (see this for an exception). Only when this issue is properly aired and addressed will we know that Labour, along with the Coalition, are intent on having a strategic discussion about Britain's long-term fiscal future.

Decades will pass before a full and fair account of Labour's economic record is formed. For now we need to recognise that, love them or loathe them, instant histories matter in politics: they frame today's media coverage and tomorrow's policy decisions. Here, unusually, is one that merits a wider readership than it will get.

Gavin Kelly is a former Downing Street adviser to Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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We need to destroy Isil, yes. But the Prime Minister has no plan

And so, until there is a better plan on the table, I will vote against bombing Syria, says Owen Smith.

There are no decisions we make as MPs more important than whether we commit our country to combat, with its inevitable loss of military and civilian lives. That is a view shared by MPs of all parties in the House of Commons, who treat their responsibility on this question with the utmost seriousness. I have no doubt, therefore, that the Prime Minister and all those who have concluded that we should enter more fully into combat in Syria, starting with bombing the Isil/Daesh stronghold Raqqua, have done so after careful consideration, believing that this action is necessary to protect the security of the UK, through defeating Isil and bringing stability to Syria.

However, I respectfully disagree with them, and I will not be supporting a motion to bomb, based on the arguments brought forward by the Prime Minister last week.

My opposition is not rooted in pacifism, it is a hard headed and finely balanced judgment based on what I think the likely strategic, security and military effects of our involvement are.

The Prime Minister is right to set out objectives to defeat Isil and the formation of a stable, inclusive government in Syria.  These are aims that we all should share and at some point the use of British military force may well be required to achieve that outcome.  I might well support military action if a comprehensive and serious plan were put to parliament by the Prime Minister.  However, the case that Cameron currently proposes singularly fails to explain to the country how bombing will achieve his twin objectives. In fact, he is equally hazy on both the end state he desires and the end game to deliver it, and even on the question of military action, it is the Opposition's job to point to holes in the government’s argument.

Though I, like most MPs, am no military expert, I have studied these issues with great care and, along with many military and diplomatic experts, I cannot see that that Britain adding around an extra 10 per cent per cent bombing capacity (we will contribute six to 10 planes) to the US, French and other forces’ capabilities is likely to make a truly telling contribution to what we can all agree should be an agreed military objective: degrading and defeating Isil.  Especially given that there have already been around 3,000 air strikes against Isil in Syria.

I am sceptical that our weaponry is significantly more effective than that of the US, however excellent our personnel. I am also sceptical that bombing can avoid civilian casualties. And am wholly unconvinced that bombing, without significant, committed, united and effective ground troops to hold and build on the territory cleared by the bombs, will deliver the objective. It may not even be enough to chase Isil out of their stronghold in Raqqa. If the Prime Minister had been able to build a coalition of support from neighbouring countries of Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and others, willing to commit troops on the ground to take and hold ground cleared by air strikes then the equation would be very different. However, the current coalition is incomplete, and the ground troops insufficient.

Cameron has talked of there being perhaps 70,000 men under arms in opposition to Isil and ready to engage on the ground, but this does seem to me, as to many others, to be an optimistic assessment. Evidently, some of the anti-Isil and anti-Assad forces can be effective, as the Kurdish militias (the YPG) showed in driving back Isil forces from the northern town of Kobani last year, under cover of US planes. But these successful moments of defence have been few and far between and have mostly either involved these Northern (Rojava) Kurdish fighters or their ethnic countrymen from Iraq, the US-trained Peshmerga. Neither group is in close proximity to Raqqa and both see their primary objective as securing a Kurdish homeland from Syria, Iraq and Turkey. Other groups, some suggest as many as a hundred, are fighting across the region, but have a wide variety of allegiances and aims, tribal and religious, including two powerful groups that are off-shoots of Al-Quaida.  So it seems clear that the Prime Minister’s current proposals offer no realistic prospect of ground forces securing territory in and around Raqqa, which will ultimately be necessary to effectively neutralise the Isil threat, both regionally and internationally.

Nor is it clear to me what Cameron hopes Bashar al Assad will do in the event of increased bombing of Isil.  Assad is currently fighting on several fronts, against Isil, against the Kurds and against other groupings, some of them the ‘moderates’ the PM hopes will help. It remains uncertain as to whether Assad will view the bombing as an opportunity to intensify his fight with Isil, or to crush the moderates whose main goal is to depose him.

Perhaps more important a reason to oppose this action than the apparent holes in the military strategy, is the lack of a plan for what comes after. The current situation on the ground, provides scant hope for a peaceful and inclusive government to emerge, even in the event of Isil being eradicated. Far more likely is the continuation of pre-existing conflicts and the emergence of new crises from the rubble of Raqqa. British bombs might hasten the end of this phase of the conflict, if supported by a real and reliable land army, but it is only diplomatic, financial and, crucially, regional political pressure that stands a chance of any form of stability.

Maybe these questions would shrink in size if I truly felt our security at home would be increased by our bombing Isil in Syria.  But I do not.  Isil is a terrorist organisation, but it is also an insurgent army, an idea and a brand. It’s monstrous reach out of Syria, to Paris most tragically, but potentially to any of our towns and cities, may well be in planning, arming and instigating. And I am sure that the Security Services could draw evil, concrete connections between Raqqa and the Bata’clan. But Isil’s reach, and its strength, is intangible too: in its propaganda and cultural call to arms.

The only way we can be sure of defeating the Isil threat to our streets and in the region, is to find a long term political solution in Syria.  Unfortunately in my judgement, the proposals put in front of us to vote on this week do not offer that potential.  The prime route to ensuring that Isil’s capacity to threaten Western Europe is destroyed is to build on the recent peace talks in Vienna, with the aim of constructing a concerted international strategy on defeating Isil.  For this to be successful, global and regional partners must play a central part in the strategy, showing that the world is united in opposition to the poisonous ideology of Isil. And Arab nations, with Sunni majorities, must be in the vanguard of both peace talks and any military action.  

Finally, I repeat that these are judgements, not facts, and I may well be proved wrong. But I reach my conclusion as an internationalist, a European and someone who loves France and the French people. Their call for us to join with them is, for this MP, by far the most compelling to step up our engagement to actual combat at their side. But it is neither unpatriotic nor cowardly for us not to do so. The UN Resolution and NATO Treaty invoked by France, call on us to engage in ‘such action as it (the individual member states or NATO as a whole) deems necessary, including the use of armed force’. That tells me that any action our Government undertakes, including bombing, will be legal. But is does not tell me whether it will be strategic and wise, politically or militarily. And just as we cannot outsource our defence to our allies in the US or France, nor too can we outsource our judgement.

And so, until there is a better plan on the table, I will vote against. 


Owen Smith is Labour MP for Pontypridd and Shadow Secretary of State for Work & Pensions.