Mehdi Hasan: Borrowing is bad - unless Gideon's doing it

Not only has growth stalled and austerity failed but the Tories can't even win the economic argument.

As I watched the Chancellor deliver his Autumn Statement to MPs yesterday, I couldn't help but remember his 2010 conference speech in Birmingham and, in particular, this bit of the speech:

Imagine, if I were to stand up in the House of Commons in two weeks time and say: I'm cancelling the deficit plan.

I agree with Ed Miliband.

Let's delay the tough decisions.

Let's borrow more.

Let's go on adding to our debt.

Imagine if I said that.

Now imagine what would follow.

The market turmoil.

The flight of investors.

The dismay of business.

The loss of confidence.

The credit downgrade.

The sharp rise in real interest rates.

The extra debt interest.

The lost jobs. The cancelled investment. The businesses destroyed. The recovery halted.

The return of crippling economic instability.

Britain back on the brink.

Hmm. Yesterday, George Osborne stood up in the Commons to reluctantly reveal that he would indeed be borrowing more - an astonishing £158bn more than he had planned to in last October's Spending Review and an embarrassing £37bn more than the much-mocked Labour plan (or "Darling plan") to cut the deficit in half over the lifetime of this parliament (as outlined in the March 2010 budget).

The Opposition has put together these two tables below, based on yesterday's OBR figures:

OBR's forecasts for public sector net borrowing (£bn)
  2011/12 2012/13 2013/14 2014/15 2015/16
November 2010 117 91 60 35 18
November 2011 127 120 100 79 53
Change since Nov 2010 +10 +29 +40 +44 +35






OBR's forecasts for public sector net borrowing (£ bn)
  2011/12 2012/13 2013/14 2014/15 2015/16
June 2010 (pre-Emergency Budget) 127 106 85 71 n/a
November 2011 127 120 100 79 53
Change since before Emergency Budget 0 +14 +15 +8 n/a

 

Then there is the graph (number 2) put together by our friends at the Spectator which shows that public sector net debt, as a percentage of GPD, will be higher in 2014/2015 than it was forecast to have been under - yep, you guessed it! - the afore-mentioned Darling plan. ("We are sinking in a sea of debt," shrieked the Chancellor in his conference speech in 2009. Now we know that, despite his savage cuts, we'll still be "sinking" in an ever-greater "sea of debt" at the next election.)

So what I'm wondering is: why isn't "Britain back on the brink"? If the country was on the verge of defaulting on its debts and being downgraded by the credit rating agencies when borrowing was forecast to be lower and growth higher - under the Darling plan - back in 2009 and 2010, why don't the latest OBR figures - which also downgrade growth for the fourth (!) time since Osborne took over at the Treasury - presage financial and economic armageddon? Isn't this the best evidence for the claim by Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, that the then shadow chancellor was guilty of "scaremongering" about borrowing and debt in an interview in the New Statesman in February 2010?

Referring to Cameron and Osborne as modern-day "Hooverites", Stiglitz said:

I say you're crazy -- economically you clearly have the capacity to pay. The debt situation has been worse in other countries at other times. This is all scaremongering, perhaps linked to politics, perhaps rigged to an economic agenda, but it's out of touch with reality.

Before the Tory trolls arrive below the line to shout about bond markets, confidence and low interest rates, I don't deny Osborne's contention that "debt interest payments over the Parliament are forecast to be £22 billion less than predicted". But I do dispute his description of Britain as a "safe haven". And I ask the deficit fetishists: if low rates are a sign of economic success and market confidence, why then did Japan enjoy such low rates in the mid-90s, during its "lost decade"? Why have borrowing costs in the United States, in the aftermath of its fiscal stimulus, the failure to sign off on spending cuts and its credit-downgrade by Standard & Poors, plummeted to historic lows?

Sticking with the subject of "confidence, the eminent economist, former Tory frontbencher and biographer of Keynes, Robert Skidelsky, writes in today's Guardian:

We come to the question of confidence. The chancellor has repeatedly claimed the deficit reduction programme was, and is, necessary to maintain investor confidence in government finances. Confidence is very important, but also mysterious: the bond markets can believe a dozen contradictory things before breakfast. The main point is that confidence cannot be separated from the economy's performance. As it stalls, the creditworthiness of governments declines as their debt increases, raising the likelihood of default.

A year ago bond traders, having forgotten what little economic theory they knew, were inclined to believe that deficit reduction would in itself generate recovery. For several months the Osbornites fed them the fantasy of "expansionary fiscal contraction", the idea that as the deficit falls the economy would expand. This story is now exploded. It's the economy that determines the size of the deficit, not the deficit that determines the size of the 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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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.