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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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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