The Tory (and Labour) obsession with deficits and cuts

The new Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) has published its forecast.

The row over cuts, deficits and economic growth continues. From the BBC:

The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) predicts the economy will expand 2.6 per cent in 2011, down from the 3 per cent to 3.5 per cent estimate given in Labour's last Budget.

The lower figure will likely increase the impetus of the coalition government to cut public spending, as lower growth means fewer tax revenues.

Yet the OBR also says the deficit and debt will not be as bad as forecast.

It predicts that the UK's public deficit will fall, down to 10.5 per cent of GDP in the 2010-11 financial year, from the 11.1 per cent estimated by Labour.

For overall net government debt -- the sum of all borrowing -- the OBR estimates this will decline to 62.2 per cent of GDP in 2010-11 from the previous estimate of 63.6 per cent.

As the BBC's Paul Mason notes on his blog (hat-tip: Left Foot Forward):

There is only a 0.3 per cent of GDP difference (maybe 5bn) between Darling's structural deficit forecast and Budd's. This means there is no prima-facie ammo in the Budd Report for a significant tightening in order to eliminate "the bulk of the structural deficit".

Yet the "deficit hysteria" that I highlighted in my NS column this week continues unabated:

We are entering, as promised, the age of austerity. And the nation's finest minds are tormented by deficit hysteria. From the corridors of Whitehall to the studios of the BBC, the debt delusion -- that Britain is bust, bankrupt, broke -- reigns supreme.

Across the spectrum, from right to left to wherever the Liberal Democrats might be these days, politicians and policymakers mouth the mantra of "Cuts, cuts, cuts". "Swingeing", one of the oddest words in the English language, seems to have become a permanent addition to the political and media lexicon.

Larry Elliott has a brilliant but depressing piece in the Guardian today ("The lunatics are back in charge of the economy and they want cuts, cuts, cuts"), in which he reminds us of how FDR made the mistake of heeding the advice of the "sound money" economists in his administration and cut spending in 1937, thereby tipping the fragile US economy back into recession.

He also refers the reader to a new study by the economist Charles Dumas, of Lombard Street Research:

Dumas notes: "If some countries deflate their economies in an attempt to cut their government deficits, other countries will have a larger deficit -- and even the deflating countries will be partially frustrated in their endeavours. Why? Because they will induce a renewed recession that will hammer tax revenue and enforce greater relief spending." The result, he warns, "will almost certainly be renewed European recession, quite possibly a prolonged depression".

Meanwhile, Ed Balls and Alastair Darling are locked in a public spat over Labour's fiscal record in office and the latter's refusal to rule out a rise in VAT in the run-up to the election. I'm with Balls on this one. And, in my humble view, the former chancellor of the Exchequer too easily accepted the narrow, debt-obsessed parameters of the deficit hawks inside the Treasury, and in the commentariat and the financial markets. Labour's pledge to halve the deficit in four years was unnecessary and arbitary (why not three? or five?), and meant that the party was -- still is -- unable to make a credible or coherent case for Keynesian counter-cyclical spending.

Then there are those New Labour figure who seem to fetishise deficit reduction, cuts and balanced budgets. Andrew Adonis, the former transport secretary and one of the cleverest ministers to serve under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, wrote in yesterday's Sunday Times:

Credibility on deficit reduction after 2011 will be vital for Labour's new leader if he (or she) seriously aspires to become prime minister.

And John Rentoul, the Independent on Sunday's chief political commentator and self-confessed "ultra-Blairite", wrote in his paper yesterday:

The long campaign, with the winner to be announced at the start of the Labour conference in September, is good for the party. By the end of the process the candidates might have got down to the real issue, which is what Labour can say about the vast fiscal deficit with which it saddled the country.

The last bit of that last sentence reads almost as if Rentoul had lifted it wholesale from a Tory press release. It is nonsense, of course -- the bankers, not the Brown government, "saddled" the country with a "vast fiscal deficit".

Thankfully, the preferred Labour leadership candidate of both Adonis and Rentoul, the former foreign secretary David Miliband, is taking a more social-democratic approach, arguing at a packed Compass conference on Saturday that Labour has to make the case that "deficits are not immoral". The elder Miliband also hailed the columns -- in this magazine! -- of Professor David "Danny" Blanchflower, who has consistently and cogently argued against premature and dangerous cuts in public spending since he joined the New Statesman in September 2009.

In fact, here's Danny, writing in the Sunday Mirror yesterday, specifically on the subject of George "Slasher" Osborne's forthcoming emergency Budget and the associated "cuts":

"It will do terrible and probably irreversible damage to the British economy. I am now 100 per cent certain these actions will push us into double-dip recession."

I do hope Danny, Larry and I are wrong and, for the sake of this country, that the Osbornes and Rentouls are right. But the lessons of history, as Larry Elliott points out, don't bode well for the UK economy.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.