George Osborne carries the Budget box, March 2012. Photograph: Getty Images
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Mehdi Hasan on why Austerity isn't working -- but no-one in the government is listening

There's nothing wrong with saying "I told you so".

Yesterday I returned to London from a family holiday in the United States - where a small stimulus has led to a growing economy and 25 consecutive months of job growth - to discover that the British economy has now re-entered recession, after shrinking a further 0.2 per cent in the first quarter of 2012. Or, as the Tory-supporting Sun put it on its front page today:

Official: Dip's a double

Don't say we didn't warn you. In fact, don't say I didn't warn you.

If any further evidence was needed that austerity isn't working, that cuts don't work, that George Osborne is a "kamikaze chancellor", this is it. Critics of the New Statesman's economics editor, David Blanchflower, must feel rather foolish right now. Once again, Blanchflower and the Keynesians are vindicated while Osborne and the Austerians are humiliated.

Surveying the empirical evidence from across the continent, Yahoo finance blogger Henry Blodget put it best:

IT'S OFFICIAL: Keynes Was Right

Blodget explained:

Now, this is not to say that the global debt-and-deficit situation is not a huge problem. It is. It is merely to say that, of the two painful ways to work our way out of the problem – "austerity now" or "stimulus now and cuts later" – the second one seems more effective.

In other words, based on the experience of the last five years, it seems that Keynes was right and the Austerians are wrong.

As I said, none of this should really come as a surprise to anyone as all of this was predictable - and predicted. As Paul Krugman has noted:

It’s important to understand that what we’re seeing isn’t a failure of orthodox economics. Standard economics in this case – that is, economics based on what the profession has learned these past three generations, and for that matter on most textbooks – was the Keynesian position. The austerity thing was just invented out of thin air and a few dubious historical examples to serve the prejudices of the elite.

And now the results are in: Keynesians have been completely right, Austerians utterly wrong – at vast human cost.

But the Austerians won't give up without a fight. They seem to have two tactics. The first is to blame the lack of growth on anything other than the cuts - be it the euro crisis, the weather, health-and-safety regulations, the family dog, etc, etc. Yesterday I tweeted this quote from City AM editor Allister Heath, from June 2010:

The years ahead will be very tough - but there will be no double-dip recession made in Downing Street.

Heath responded with this tweet:

Unfortunately, I underestimated this government's competence and commitment to supply-side reforms. They haven't delivered.

Good of him to say so. But "supply-side reforms"? Er, the UK economy, like the global economy, is suffering from an epic lack of demand. Households aren't spending, banks aren't lending, companies aren't investing. "Red tape" isn't what's behind the record rate of unemployment or the absence of growth and confidence. The main reason why the UK economy contracted in the first quarter of this year is because there was a 3 per cent decline in the construction sector - driven, of course, by the Chancellor's crazy decision to slash capital spending.  

Even Heath's fellow Austerian, the Telegraph's Jeremy Warner, grudgingly acknowledges this point today at the end of a desperate if heavily caveated defence of Osbornomics and "consolidation":

When companies won’t borrow to invest, there’s a strong case for governments to do so in their place. And yet when you look at where the axe is falling hardest, it is on government investment – spending on schools, hospitals, roads, bridges, affordable housing, and so on. This is the easiest thing to chop, so that’s where the coalition has acted first.

In fact, this form of state spending should be doubled, tripled or even quadrupled. . .

Hear, hear!

The second tactic is to pretend that those of us who draw attention to the political and economic significance of this double-dip recession are somehow "enjoying" or taking "pleasure" from the catastrophic (lack of) growth figures. I've had lots of tweets from Tory trolls using this line of attack. This isn't just nonsensical and offensive but a brazen and desperate attempt to try and divert attention away from those damning figures, which deserve highlighting, and away from the Austerians in Westminster and Fleet Street, who deserve criticising.

We're also told by the cuts-defending Austerians that it is "irresponsible" to talk down the UK economy. But I, for one, won't take lessons in "responsibility" from those who happily, shamelessly and opportunistically talked down the economy when they were in opposition, going so far as to claim that the UK was on the verge of defaulting on its debts and making ludicrous comparisons between the British and Greek economies.

One of the presenters on ITV1's Daybreak programme tried this "You're far too pleased about the recession" tactic this morning, in an interview with Ed Balls. The shadow chancellor's response, however, was spot on:
 

Interviewer:  Well let’s talk about that then, talk about the recession, we are in a double dip recession, I guess you’re sitting there saying: ‘I told you so’?

Balls: Well I sat here on this sofa, one and two years ago and said if the government tries to cut spending and raise taxes too quickly, faster then other countries it will backfire. And the thing which makes me angry is that George Osborne and David Cameron were so personally just dismissive, they just said it was rubbish and now we are back in recession. Their plan has categorically failed, families and businesses are now really paying the price. That self-defeating austerity has put us through such pain and we need an alternative plan. We’ve got to get jobs and growth moving, they should’ve done this much earlier.


Showing anger at the coalition's arrogance, incompetence and failure to listen or respond is the right response to such questions. Now is the time for the Labour leadership to sit on the fence or split the difference or triangulate; now is the moment to channel the public's anger and discontent. It seems to be working for President Obama.

Remember: we are not all in this together. And the argument over the cuts isn't just about politics or economics; it's about real people's lives and livelihoods. Britons are suffering. According to new figures from the Trussell Trust charity, for example, the number of people visiting foodbanks for emergency food in the UK has doubled in the last year, to over 128,000 people.

So let's be clear: Ed Miliband is doing a fine job on phone-hacking, the Murdochs and Huntgate but these aren't the issues that will win him the next general election. The economy was, is and will continue to be the defining issue of this parliament - and, as yesterday's GDP figures conclusively demonstrate, the coalition government has made a mess of it. If the Labour leader is able to stand before voters in May 2015 and pull a Reagan, Cameron and Clegg will be in big trouble. And Osborne's much-hyped reputation as a master strategist will be buried for good.


 

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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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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