Whisper it, but Osborne has embraced Keynesianism

The Chancellor has accepted the need for the state to underwrite investment.

The announcement by George Osborne that the government will underwrite £50bn of infrastructure investment is a belated admission that, in times of recession, the state must intervene to stimulate growth. The delusion that the coalition's spending cuts would increase consumer confidence and produce a self-sustaining private-sector-led recovery has been abandoned after Osborne's "expansionary fiscal contraction" turned out to be, well, contractionary. Whisper it, but Keynesianism is back. 

Since the decision to guarantee loans will not, in theory at least, require the government to spend a penny more, Osborne will insist that this is not "plan B" or anything like it. As his sidekick, Danny Alexander, puts it, "This is not a direct call on the taxpayer. That would only happen if something went wrong with a project." And after the private sector's sterling performance over the last month, why should we doubt him?

But even if we assume that the taxpayer won't be forced to pick up the tab for any of the projects (the FT cites "the Thames tunnel, the Mersey Gateway toll bridge and the A14 road widening in Cambridge" as examples of those that might benefit), this remains a significant U-turn by Osborne. As the excellent Jonathan Portes points out on his blog, from an economic perspective, the difference between the government "borrowing from the private sector to finance investment spending, and the government guaranteeing the borrrowing of another entity" is is largely irrelevant. The Chancellor has accepted the need for counter-cyclical spending to boost aggregate demand - the essence of Keynesianism.

Now Osborne has performed a small U-turn he will find it harder to avoid a bigger one. The belief that, in times of recession, the state can and should stimulate growth through temporary tax cuts and infrastructure spending is based on decades of economic research. Once you accept this, it is hard to be a little heretical.

Since Osborne is so fond of boasting of the UK's "safe haven" status, the least he could do is take advantage of it. He should use the country's historically low bond yields to borrow to stimulate growth through higher infrastructure spending (the most effective stimulus, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility) and tax cuts.  As the Nobel Prize-winning economist Christopher Pissarides argued in our "Plan B" special issue last October, "a small rise in gilt interest rates is a small price to pay for more jobs".

The Chancellor has finally accepted that there is an alternative to permanent stagnation (or worse). Now he needs the policies to match.

Chancellor George Osborne plans to guarantee up to £40bn of "nearly ready" infrastructure projects. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Labour’s best general election bet is Keir Starmer

The shadow secretary for Brexit has the heart of a Remainer - but head of a pragmatic politician in Brexit Britain. 

In a different election, the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer might have been written off as too quiet a man. Instead - as he set out his plans to scrap the Brexit white paper and offer EU citizens reassurance on “Day One” in the grand hall of the Institute of Civil Engineers - the audience burst into spontaneous applause. 

For voters now torn between their loyalty to Labour and Remain, Starmer is a reassuring figure. Although he says he respects the Brexit vote, the former director of public prosecutions is instinctively in favour of collaborating with Europe. He even wedges phrases like “regulatory alignment” into his speeches. When a journalist asked about the practicality of giving EU citizens right to remain before UK citizens abroad have received similar promises, he retorted: “The way you just described it is to use people as bargaining chips… We would not do that.”

He is also clear about the need for Parliament to vote on a Brexit deal in the autumn of 2018, for a transitional agreement to replace the cliff edge, and for membership of the single market and customs union to be back on the table. When pressed on the option of a second referendum, he said: “The whole point of trying to involve Parliament in the process is that when we get to the final vote, Parliament has had its say.” His main argument against a second referendum idea is that it doesn’t compare like with like, if a transitional deal is already in place. For Remainers, that doesn't sound like a blanket veto of #EUref2. 

Could Leave voters in the provinces warm to the London MP for Holborn and St Pancras? The answer seems to be no – The Daily Express, voice of the blue passport brigade, branded his speech “a plot”. But Starmer is at least respectful of the Brexit vote, as it stands. His speech was introduced by Jenny Chapman, MP for Darlington, who berated Westminster for their attitude to Leave voters, and declared: “I would not be standing here if the Labour Party were in anyway attempting to block Brexit.” Yes, Labour supporters who voted Leave may prefer a Brexiteer like Kate Hoey to Starmer,  but he's in the shadow Cabinet and she's on a boat with Nigel Farage. 

Then there’s the fact Starmer has done his homework. His argument is coherent. His speech was peppered with references to “businesses I spoke to”. He has travelled around the country. He accepts that Brexit means changing freedom of movement rules. Unlike Clive Lewis, often talked about as another leadership contender, he did not resign but voted for the Article 50 Bill. He is one of the rare shadow cabinet members before June 2016 who rejoined the front bench. This also matters as far as Labour members are concerned – a March poll found they disapproved of the way Labour has handled Brexit, but remain loyal to Jeremy Corbyn. 

Finally, for those voters who, like Brenda, reacted to news of a general election by complaining "Not ANOTHER one", Starmer has some of the same appeal as Theresa May - he seems competent and grown-up. While EU regulation may be intensely fascinating to Brexiteers and Brussels correspondents, I suspect that by 2019 most of the British public's overwhelming reaction to Brexit will be boredom. Starmer's willingness to step up to the job matters. 

Starmer may not have the grassroots touch of the Labour leader, nor the charisma of backbench dissidents like Chuka Umunna, but the party should make him the de facto face of the campaign.  In the hysterics of a Brexit election, a quiet man may be just what Labour needs.

What did Keir Starmer say? The key points of his speech

  • An immediate guarantee that all EU nationals currently living in the UK will see no change in their legal status as a result of Brexit, while seeking reciprocal measures for UK citizens in the EU. 
  • Replacing the Tories’ Great Repeal Bill with an EU Rights and Protections Bill which fully protects consumer, worker and environmental rights.
  • A replacement White Paper with a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union. 
  • The devolution of any new powers that are transferred back from Brussels should go straight to the relevant devolved body, whether regional government in England or the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Parliament should be fully involved in the Brexit deal, and MPs should be able to vote on the deal in autumn 2018.
  • A commitment to seek to negotiate strong transitional arrangements when leaving the EU and to ensure there is no cliff-edge for the UK economy. 
  • An acceptance that freedom of movement will end with leaving the EU, but a commitment to prioritise jobs and economy in the negotiations.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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