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 adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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Jeremy Corbyn speech on terrorism and foreign policy: full text

The Labour leader laid out his vision for British foreign policy. 

Our whole nation has been united in shock and grief this week as a night out at a concert ended in horrific terror and the brutal slaughter of innocent people enjoying themselves. When I stood on Albert Square at the vigil in Manchester, there was a mood of unwavering defiance. The very act of thousands of people coming together sent a powerful message of solidarity and love. It was a profound human impulse to stand together, caring and strong. It was inspiring.

In the past few days, we have all perhaps thought a bit more about our country, our communities and our people. The people we have lost to atrocious violence or who have suffered grievous injury, so many of them heart-breakingly young .

 The people who we ask to protect us and care for us in the emergency services, who yet again did our country proud: the police; firefighters and paramedics; the nurses and doctors; people who never let us down and deserve all the support we can give them. And the people who did their best to help on that dreadful Monday night – the homeless men who rushed towards the carnage to comfort the dying, the taxi drivers who took the stranded home for free, the local people who offered comfort, and even their homes, to the teenagers who couldn’t find their parents.

They are the people of Manchester. But we know that attacks, such as the one at the Manchester Arena, could have happened anywhere and that the people in any city, town or village in Britain would have responded in the same way.

It is these people who are the strength and the heart of our society. They are the country we love and the country we seek to serve. That is the solidarity that defines our United Kingdom. That is the country I meet on the streets every day; the human warmth, the basic decency and kindness.

It is our compassion that defines the Britain I love. And it is compassion that the bereaved families need most of all at this time. To them I say: the whole country reaches out its arms to you and will be here for you not just this week, but in the weeks and years to come. Terrorists and their atrocious acts of cruelty and depravity will never divide us and will never prevail.

They didn’t in Westminster two months ago. They didn’t when Jo Cox was murdered a year ago. They didn’t in London on 7/7. The awe-inspiring response of the people of Manchester, and their inspirational acts of heroism and kindness, are a living demonstration that they will fail again.

But these vicious and contemptible acts do cause profound pain and suffering, and, among a tiny minority, they are used as an opportunity to try to turn communities against each other.

So let us all be clear, the man who unleashed carnage on Manchester, targeting the young and many young girls in particular, is no more representative of Muslims, than the murderer of Jo Cox spoke for anyone else. Young people and especially young women must and will be free to enjoy themselves in our society.

I have spent my political life working for peace and human rights and to bring an end to conflict and devastating wars. That will almost always mean talking to people you profoundly disagree with. That’s what conflict resolution is all about. But do not doubt my determination to take whatever action is necessary to keep our country safe and to protect our people on our streets, in our towns and cities, at our borders.

There is no question about the seriousness of what we face. Over recent years, the threat of terrorism has continued to grow. You deserve to know what a Labour Government will do to keep you and your family safe. Our approach will involve change at home and change abroad.

At home, we will reverse the cuts to our emergency services and police. Once again in Manchester, they have proved to be the best of us. Austerity has to stop at the A&E ward and at the police station door. We cannot be protected and cared for on the cheap. There will be more police on the streets under a Labour Government. And if the security services need more resources to keep track of those who wish to murder and maim, then they should get them.  

We will also change what we do abroad. Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home.

That assessment in no way reduces the guilt of those who attack our children. Those terrorists will forever be reviled and implacably held to account for their actions.

But an informed understanding of the causes of terrorism is an essential part of an effective response that will protect the security of our people, that fights rather than fuels terrorism.

Protecting this country requires us to be both strong against terrorism and strong against the causes of terrorism. The blame is with the terrorists, but if we are to protect our people we must be honest about what threatens our security.

Those causes certainly cannot be reduced to foreign policy decisions alone. Over the past fifteen years or so, a sub-culture of often suicidal violence has developed amongst a tiny minority of, mainly young, men, falsely drawing authority from Islamic beliefs and often nurtured in a prison system in urgent need of resources and reform. And no rationale based on the actions of any government can remotely excuse, or even adequately explain, outrages like this week’s massacre. But we must be brave enough to admit the war on terror is simply not working. We need a smarter way to reduce the threat from countries that nurture terrorists and generate terrorism.

That’s why I set out Labour’s approach to foreign policy earlier this month. It is focused on strengthening our national security in an increasingly dangerous world.

We must support our Armed Services, Foreign Office and International Development professionals, engaging with the world in a way that reduces conflict and builds peace and security.

Seeing the army on our own streets today is a stark reminder that the current approach has failed. So, I would like to take a moment to speak to our soldiers on the streets of Britain. You are doing your duty as you have done so many times before.

I want to assure you that, under my leadership, you will only be deployed abroad when there is a clear need and only when there is a plan and you have the resources to do your job to secure an outcome that delivers lasting peace.

That is my commitment to our armed services. This is my commitment to our country. I want the solidarity, humanity and compassion that we have seen on the streets of Manchester this week to be the values that guide our government. There can be no love of country if there is neglect or disregard for its people. No government can prevent every terrorist attack.  If an individual is determined enough and callous enough, sometimes they will get through.

But the responsibility of government is to minimise that chance, to ensure the police have the resources they need, that our foreign policy reduces rather than increases the threat to this country, and that at home we never surrender the freedoms we have won, and that terrorists are so determined to take away. Too often government has got it wrong on all three counts and insecurity is growing as a result. Whoever you decide should lead the next government must do better.

Today, we must stand united. United in our communities, united in our values and united in our determination to not let triumph those who would seek to divide us. So for the rest of this election campaign, we must be out there demonstrating what they would take away: our freedom; our democracy; our support for one another. Democracy will prevail. We must defend our democratic process, win our arguments by discussion and debate, and stand united against those who would seek to take our rights away, or who would divide us.

 Last week, I said that the Labour Party was about bringing our country together. Today I do not want to make a narrow party political point. Because all of us now need to stand together. Stand together in memory of those who have lost their lives. Stand together in solidarity with the city of Manchester. And – stand together for democracy.

Because when we talk about British values, including tolerance and mutual support, democracy is at the very heart of them. And our General Election campaigns are the centrepieces of our democracy – the moment all our people get to exercise their sovereign authority over their representatives.

Rallies, debates, campaigning in the marketplaces, knocking on doors, listening to people on the streets, at their workplaces and in their homes – all the arts of peaceful persuasion and discussion – are the stuff of our campaigns.

They all remind us that our government is not chosen at an autocrats’ whim or by religious decree and never cowed by a terrorist’s bomb.

Indeed, carrying on as normal is an act of defiance – democratic defiance – of those who do reject our commitment to democratic freedoms.

But we cannot carry on as though nothing happened in Manchester this week.

So, let the quality of our debate, over the next fortnight, be worthy of the country we are proud to defend. Let’s have our arguments without impugning anyone’s patriotism and without diluting the unity with which we stand against terror.

Together, we will be stronger. Together we can build a Britain worthy of those who died and those who have inspired us all in Manchester this week. Thank you.

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