Paul Krugman said Labour was "weak". Source: Getty Images
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Mehdi Hasan interviews Paul Krugman: Labour is "weak" in its opposition to cuts

The Nobel economist is scathing in his criticism of the two Eds.

In person, Paul Krugman is short, shy and quiet. But the Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist isn’t afraid to hurl verbal hand grenades at his opponents – as I discovered to my amusement when I caught up with him on a visit to London this past week.

Krugman, who was in town to plug his new book End This Depression Now!, struggled to find anything positive to say about the EU’s leaders, President Barack Obama or the Israeli government. But it was the Princeton University professor’s comments about the Labour Party that stood out for me.

He was scathingly critical of Labour’s “weak” opposition to the Conservative-led coalition’s spending cuts. “Certainly, economically, they’re too cautious,” he said, dismissing the party’s plan to halve the deficit over four years.

His comments will make uneasy reading for the two Eds, Balls and Miliband, who are petrified of being tagged as “deficit deniers” by their right-wing critics. Under pressure from the Blairites inside the party, they have been trying to find the right balance between opposing the coalition’s austerity measures in the short run and supporting deficit reduction and cuts in the long run.

Krugman seemed to have little sympathy for them: Labour’s position on austerity, he told me, “has been a kind of ‘We’re like them but only less so’. And it does come across as fairly weak.” He continued: “It does seem odd that when you ask me: ‘Where is the really effective intellectual opposition coming from?’, it seems to be think-tank people and journalists. The opposition is Martin Wolf [of the Financial Times], Jonathan Portes [of the National Institute for Economic and Social Research], Simon Wren-Lewis [of Oxford University], David Blanchflower [of the New Statesman] and me.”

That, he said, is a “sad commentary” on the state of Her Majesty’s Opposition.

To add insult to injury, the Nobel laureate had high praise and much sympathy for Miliband’s predecessor, the much-maligned Gordon Brown. “He has been treated unfairly by history,” he said. “Yes, [Brown] made mistakes, but he is a much better guy than his current reputation suggests.”

I asked Krugman if he stood by his now-famous October 2008 description of the former prime minister as the leader who “saved the world financial system”. The economist nodded furiously. “Yes, he took the lead on the financial rescue which did save the world,” he told me. Without [Brown’s leadership], things would have been much, much worse. He was a smart guy.”

Krugman, a long-standing critic of the European single currency, was also keen to remind me how it was Brown who, as chancellor of the exchequer during the late 1990s, “kept Britain out of the euro. It would be a catastrophe here if Britain were in the euro.”

My full interview with the professor will appear in the New Statesman later this year.

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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PMQs: David Cameron finds his way past Jeremy Corbyn's 4-5-1

The Prime Minister has finally got to grips with Jeremy Corbyn's new approach. 

Jeremy Corbyn’s best performances come when he speaks with the voices of others. Going for the traditional attacking and braying of PMQs leaves him badly exposed, allowing David Cameron to attack him on 30+ years of articles for the Morning Star, appearances on Russia Today, and any number of unsupportive remarks from Labour politicians, both retired and currently in Parliament.

“If JC attempts any kind of cut and thrust *at all* he will get shredded by DC for his own various positions,” reflected one of the team tasked with briefing the Labour leader before PMQs. Corbyn’s new approach to PMQs – of bringing public questions – have a double bonus: they are a living embodiment of the “new politics” that the Islington North MP promises and they make it much harder for Cameron to reply by attacking Corbyn’s record.

It’s a defensive tactic, but the occasional win in the old style is more than wiped out by the damage to Labour and Corbyn by allowing Cameron to play “Red Scare” in the House.

It’s no coincidence that Corbyn’s better PMQs have come when he uses the new-style and his worst when he attempts the old. Until today, the Prime Minister has seemed flummoxed by how to respond to the Labour leader’s use of real people at the despatch box.

But today he finally managed one, skilfully re-appropriating “Rosie”, a young Londoner who is being hit by the capital’s skyrocketing property and rents, in order to praise the government’s record – such as it is – on housebuilding. If you look at the small print, Cameron’s answers left much to be desired: he talked about people like Rosie working to pay the housing benefit of others, a benefit that largely goes to people in work. He praised a fairly indifferent record of housebuilding – that falls far short of where Britain’s housing stock needs to be even to stand still.

However, the Labour leader was incapable of pinning him down. With the old approach to PMQs a non-starter against Cameron, and the Prime Minister finally finding a way to live with the new style, a third way may have be found. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.