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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As long as the Tories fail to solve the housing crisis, they will struggle to win

The fall in the number of homeowners leaves the Conservatives unable to sell capitalism to those with no capital. 

For the Conservatives, rising home ownership was once a reliable route to government. Former Labour voters still speak of their gratitude to Margaret Thatcher for the Right to Buy scheme. But as home ownership has plummeted, the Tories have struggled to sell capitalism to a generation without capital. 

In Britain, ownership has fallen to 63.5 per cent, the lowest rate since 1987 and the fourth-worst in the EU. The number of private renters now exceeds 11 million (a larger number than in the social sector). The same policies that initially promoted ownership acted to reverse it. A third of Right to Buy properties fell into the hands of private landlords. High rents left tenants unable to save for a deposit.

Rather than expanding supply, the Tories have focused on subsidising demand (since 2010, housebuilding has fallen to its lowest level since 1923). At a cabinet meeting in 2013, shortly after the launch of the government’s Help to Buy scheme, George Osborne declared: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. The then-chancellor’s remark epitomised his focus on homeowners. Conservative policy was consciously designed to enrich the propertied.

A new report from the Resolution Foundation, Home Affront: housing across the generations, shows the consequences of such short-termism. Based on recent trends, less than half of millennials will buy a home before the age of 45 compared to over 70 per cent of baby boomers. Four out of every ten 30-year-olds now live in private rented accommodation (often of substandard quality) in contrast to one in ten 50 years ago. And while the average family spent just 6 per cent of their income on housing costs in the early 1960s, this has trebled to 18 per cent. 

When Theresa May launched her Conservative leadership campaign, she vowed to break with David Cameron’s approach. "Unless we deal with the housing deficit, we will see house prices keep on rising," she warned. "The divide between those who inherit wealth and those who don’t will become more pronounced. And more and more of the country’s money will go into expensive housing instead of more productive investments that generate more economic growth."

The government has since banned letting agent fees and announced an additional £1.4bn for affordable housing – a sector entirely neglected by Cameron and Osborne (see graph below). Social housing, they believed, merely created more Labour voters. "They genuinely saw housing as a petri dish for voters," Nick Clegg later recalled. "It was unbelievable." 

But though housebuilding has risen to its highest levels since 2008, with 164,960 new homes started in the year to June 2017 and 153,000 completed, this remains far short of the 250,000 required merely to meet existing demand (let alone make up the deficit). In 2016/17, the government funded just 944 homes for social rent (down from 36,000 in 2010). 

In a little-noticed speech yesterday, Sajid Javid promised a "top-to-bottom" review of social housing following the Grenfell fire. But unless this includes a substantial increase in public funding, the housing crisis will endure. 

For the Conservatives, this would pose a great enough challenge in normal times. But the political energy absorbed by Brexit, and the £15bn a year it is forecast to cost the UK, makes it still greater.

At the 2017 general election, homeowners voted for the Tories over Labour by 55 per cent to 30 per cent (mortgage holders by 43-40). By contrast, private renters backed Labour by 54 per cent to 31 per cent. As long as the latter multiply in number, while the former fall, the Tories will struggle to build a majority-winning coalition. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.