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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The clever ideological trick that could save the Labour party

The Co-operative party could suddenly get a lot more popular. 

It’s do or die for the party’s moderate MPs, who have lost the fight for the soul of Labour and must quickly move on. 

The 172 Labour MPs who backed a no-confidence vote in Jeremy Corbyn earlier this year may not like their newly elected party leader much, but they loathe John McDonnell. 

So it is little surprise that one of them, John Woodcock, reportedly looked “sick to the stomach” when the Shadow Chancellor tenderly invited him for a cuppa in his office following the leadership election result at conference. Reading the tea leaves tells me those talks aren’t going to go well.  

Yet moderate MPs would do well to revisit McDonnell’s off-the-cuff comments from a few years back: “I’m not in the Labour party because I’m a believer of the Labour party as some supreme body or something God-given or anything like that,” he told a small audience in 2012. “It’s a tactic. It’s as simple as that. If it’s no longer a useful vehicle, move on.” 

Two feather-spitting former frontbenchers called for McDonnell’s resignation when these comments emerged in March, saying they revealed his Trotskyist tendencies. "The context (a hard-left gathering) and the company (which included Gerry Downing, expelled from Labour for his comments on 9/11) didn’t make for great publicity, no," a Leader’s Office staffer privately confesses. 

But McDonnell is right: There is nothing necessary, natural or divinely ordained about Labour’s existence lest it can get things done. Which is why the parliamentary Labour party cannot botch its next attempt at power. 

In the wake of Corbyn’s re-election, Labour MPs face a fork-in-the-road: fight this civil war until its bitter end - play the long game, wait until Labour loses the next general election and challenge Corbyn again - or start afresh. 

It is a bleak, binary choice, akin to a doctor delivering test results and declaring the illness is terminal as feared: the patient can go down fighting and die a slow death, notwithstanding a medical miracle, or instead take part in a pioneering new drug trial. This carries the risk of dying immediately but promises the possibility of life as well. Both options are fraught with danger.

The problem with the first option is that moderates have all but lost the party already. A poll reveals Corbyn won 85 per cent - 15 per cent among members who joined after he became party leader and lost 37 per cent - 63 per cent among those who were members of the party before the last general election. The result: victory by 119,000 votes. 

Corbyn has already announced he wants to give these foot soldiers far greater firepower and told Andrew Marr he had asked the NEC to draft plans for increasing the membership and including it in “all aspects of party decision making”. Labour is transitioning apace into a social movement: free of formal hierarchy and ambivalent about parliamentary power. 

So why wait until 2020? There is every chance that MPs won’t any longer have the power to challenge to Corbyn within four years’ time. If Momentum has its way with reselection and shadow cabinet elections, leading rebels may not be around to begin with. 

Even if MPs mount another leadership challenge, few believe organisations like Saving Labour or Labour First could put together a sizeable enough electorate to outgun Corbyn at the ballot box. He would be voted back in by a landslide. 

The alternative is for MPs to create a new centre-left force. The main plan under consideration is to join the Cooperative party, Labour’s sister party, and sit as a bloc of “double hatted” MPs, with their own policy agenda on Brexit and the economy. This new bloc would apply to the Speaker to become the official opposition. 

Plenty of MPs and members recoil at the idea of a semi-split like this because of the mixed message it would send to voters on the doorstep. "So you don’t have faith in Corbyn, but you’re a Co-op MP campaigning on behalf of his Labour?" Many believe a full-split would be worse. They fear being pitted against Corbyn-backed Labour candidates in local constituencies and splitting the left vote, opening the door to Ukip or the Conservatives in marginal seats. 

But if moderate MPs mean what they say when they warn of total electoral wipeout in 2020, risking a new centre-left grouping is intuitively worth it.  What do they have to lose? And how many more times can Labour’s moderates cry wolf - Labour "risks extinction", Sadiq Khan said yesterday - until voters call their bluff and tell them to quit complaining and fall in line behind their leader? 

While Corbyn’s polling remains disastrous, a Co-op/Labour party would boast a mandate of 9.3m people, a policy agenda in line with Britain’s political centre of gravity and a chance of becoming the official opposition: a risk worth taking in the face of electoral oblivion. 

A handful of battle-bruised MPs are talking about coming together. "Time to unite," a deflated Hilary Benn tweeted this weekend. There is a precedent for this: first past the post means the party has always been composed of uneasy coalitions of different groups - take the trade unionists, liberal cosmopolites and ethnic minorities of the New Labour years - and it is arguably no different now.  

Yet this is not about a coalition of diverse interests. It is about two parties within a party, each of which believes Labour is their rightful inheritance. Of the two, moderates are least likely to gain anything by engaging in an all out war. It is time they took a leaf out of McDonnell’s book and accepted it is time, regrettably, "to move on". 

Gabriel Pogrund is a journalist at The Sunday Times and a Google News Fellow 2016.