More claptrap on “cuts”

This time from the Lib Dem cabinet minister Chris Huhne.

I blogged earlier about how disappointed I was to listen to Nassim Nicholas Taleb -- someone I like and admire -- heap praise on David Cameron.

I also like Chris Huhne, the Energy Secretary and former Lib Dem home affairs spokesman, and have long regarded him as one of the brightest and ablest politicians in Westminster. He is a former economist who worked for the Fitch Ratings agency and as business editor for the Independent and the Independent on Sunday. He is also a former member of the Labour Party.

So you can imagine how disappointed I was to see him join the coalition cabinet in May and then appear on BBC1's Question Time last night to defend the Con-Dem coalition's growing number of spending cuts.

The Lib Dems, remember, spent the election campaign opposing the Tories' plans for early spending cuts, which Vince Cable described in April as a "smokescreen for job cuts".

Huhne's fellow panellists were quick to pounce on his party's abrupt and embarrassing fiscal U-turn. "You are providing the sheep's clothing for a very rapacious government that is going to cut spending," said the Labour peer Helena Kennedy, to audience applause.

Depressingly, however, Huhne chose to rehearse Tory talking points, claiming:

You cannot spend public money you don't have.

Um. Er. Yes you can. It's called borrowing. It's what governments have always done in crises. As the FT's Samuel Brittan wrote last year:

Of one thing I am sure. If we had the misfortune to engage in a major war, we would have far higher deficits and debts than anything now in prospect and few except some pacifists would worry. The Second World War was financed in the UK with a 0.5 per cent bank rate. Why should it be more alarming for governments to get into debt to put people into useful work satisfying human needs than to borrow for guns and tanks whose only aim is to kill other human beings?

Huhne even pushed the Greece analogy -- an analogy so ludicrous and discredited that even David Cameron has backtracked on deploying it.

But not Huhne:

If we go on like that, we'll end up like Greece.

As his fellow panellist and former Labour cabinet minister Peter Hain responded, in perhaps the best line of the night:

No serious economic commentator, and you used to be one before you got into government, believes our economy is anything like Greece.

Hain is right. For a detailed and incisive critique of the "UK is like Greece" non-argument, check out this Comment Is Free piece from the new Labour MP (and former Bank of England economist) Rachel Reeves, who writes:

The UK has less debt than Greece, has a stronger economy and as a result is not regarded by financial markets in the way Greece is. With the right economic policies, Britain's economy could grow strongly in the next few years. We are different from Greece in three key areas: the sustainability of our fiscal position, our policy flexibility and the origins of the debt crisis.

UPDATE: Chris Huhne used to be, as Helena Kennedy pointed out last night, an admirer of Keynes and Keynesian economics. He should, therefore, remember how Keynes described the deficit hawks of his own era:

Every person in this country of super-asinine propensities, everyone who hates social progress and loves deflation, feels that his hour has come and triumphantly announces how, by refraining from every form of economic activity, we can all become prosperous again.

(Via Robert Skidelsy in yesterday's FT)

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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Sadiq Khan likely to be most popular Labour leader, YouGov finds

The Mayor of London was unusual in being both well-known, and not hated. 

Sadiq Khan is the Labour politician most likely to be popular as a party leader, a YouGov survey has suggested.

The pollsters looked at prominent Labour politicians and asked the public about two factors - their awareness of the individual, and how much they liked them. 

For most Labour politicians, being well-known also correlated with being disliked. A full 94 per cent of respondents had heard of Jeremy Corbyn, the current Labour leader. But when those who liked him were balanced out against those who did, his net likeability rating was -40, the lowest of any of the Labour cohort. 

By contast, the Labour backbencher and former army man Dan Jarvis was the most popular, with a net likeability rating of -1. But he also was one of the least well-known.

Just four politicians managed to straddle the sweet spot of being less disliked and more well-known. These included former Labour leadership contestants Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham, and Hilary Benn. 

But the man who beat them all was Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of Lodon. 

YouGov's Chris Curtis said that in terms of likeability Khan "outstrips almost everyone else". But since Khan only took up his post last year, he is unlikely to be able to run in an imminent Labour contest.

For this reason, Curtis suggested that party members unhappy with the status quo would be better rallying around one of the lesser known MPs, such as Lisa Nandy, Jarvis or the shadow Brexit minister Keir Starmer. 

He said: "Being largely unknown may also give them the opportunity to shape their own image and give them more space to rejuvenate the Labour brand."

Another lesser-known MP hovering just behind this cohort in the likeability scores is Clive Lewis, a former journalist and army reservist, who served in Afghanistan. 

Lewis, along with Nandy, has supported the idea of a progressive alliance between Labour and other opposition parties, but alienated Labour's more Eurosceptic wing when he quit the frontbench over the Article 50 vote.

There is nevertheless space for a wildcard. The YouGov rating system rewards those who manage to achieve the greatest support and least antagonism, rather than divisive politicians who might nevertheless command deep support.

Chuku Umunna, for example, is liked by a larger share of respondents than Jarvis, but is also disliked by a significant group of respondents. 

However, any aspiring Labour leader should heed this warning - after Corbyn, the most unpopular Labour politician was the former leader, Ed Miliband. 

Who are YouGov's future Labour leaders?

Dan Jarvis

Jarvis, a former paratrooper who lost his wife to cancer, is a Westminster favourite but less known to the wider world. As MP for Barnsley Central he has been warning about the threat of Ukip for some time, and called Labour's ambiguous immigration policy "toxic". 

Lisa Nandy

Nandy, the MP for Wigan, has been whispered as a possible successor, but did not stand in the 2015 Labour leadership election. (She did joke to the New Statesman "see if I pull out a secret plan in a few years' time"). Like Lewis, Nandy has written in favour of a progressive alliance. On immigration, she has stressed the solidarity between different groups on low wages, a position that might placate the pro-immigration membership. 

Keir Starmer

As shadow Brexit minister and a former director of public prosecutions, Starmer is a widely-respected policy heavyweight. He joined the mass resignation after Brexit, but rejoined the shadow cabinet and has been praised for his clarity of thought. As the MP for Holborn and St Pancras, though, he must fight charges of being a "metropolitan elite". 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.