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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle