Exclusive: Osborne's supporters turn on him

Leading economists who formerly backed Osborne urge him to change course.

On 14 February 2010, 20 prominent economists wrote to the Sunday Times in support of George Osborne's deficit reduction strategy. They said: "... in order to be credible, the government's goal should be to eliminate the structural current budget deficit over the course of a Parliament, and there is a compelling case, all else equal, for the first measures beginning to take effect in the 2010/11 fiscal year." The Chancellor hailed their letter as a "really significant moment in the economic debate".

Two and a half years later, the UK is mired in a double-dip recession and Osborne is set to borrow £11.8bn more than Labour planned. For this week's issue of the New Statesman (out tomorrow), we asked the 20 whether they regretted signing the letter and what they would do to stimulate growth. Of those who replied, only one, Albert Marcet of Barcelona Graduate School of Economics, was willing to repeat his endorsement of Osborne. Nine urged the Chancellor to abandon his opposition to fiscal stimulus and to promote growth through tax cuts and higher infrastructure spending, while others merely said "no comment" or were "on holiday".

With the UK able to borrow at the lowest interest rates for 300 years (largely owing to its non-membership of the euro and its independent monetary policy), the signatories are both surprised and dismayed at Osborne’s failure to invest for growth. Since he entered the Treasury, the Chancellor has cut investment spending by £24.4bn, a net reduction of 48 per cent.

It is now only Osborne's political pride that is preventing a change of direction. Borrowing for growth would be a tacit admission that his nemesis, Ed Balls, was right and he was wrong. But if Osborne is not to condemn the UK economy - and his party’s poll ratings - to permanent stagnation, there is no alternative.

You can read the economists' responses in full in this week's New Statesman, but here, for Staggers readers, are the key lines.

Roger Bootle
Capital Economics

If I were Chancellor at this point, I would alter the plan, I would stop the cuts to public investment and I might even seek to increase it.

The key thing is to try and get the private sector to spend its money and that may require a bit of government spending to prime the pump.

Roger Bootle is the managing director of Capital Economics and author of “The Trouble With Markets” (Nicholas Brealey, £12.99)

Danny Quah
London School of Economics

The fear that UK borrowing would become overly costly has become much less relevant ... For most observers, the Bank of England has made clear that it is willing to put considerable resources into monetary easing. That has also reduced the pressure for dramatic debt reduction, compared to the perceived monetary stance at the time I signed the letter.

So, have I changed my mind since signing the letter? Yes. Because circumstances have changed.

Danny Quah is professor of economics and Kuwait Professor at the LSE

David Newbery
Cambridge University

It was necessary to cut current expenditure but, given the poor state of Britain’s publicly funded infrastructure and the looming recession, the necessary counterpart (taught us by Keynes in the Great Depression whose length we have now exceeded) is to increase public investment expenditure even if this worsened the short-run public deficit. That would stimulate private investment, particularly if it relaxed important transport bottlenecks, in a far more positive way than just cutting total government expenditure. That was indeed what the United States did with its immediate response, although many argued that it was at too modest a scale.

We need growth, and that requires investment. In a recession bordering on a depression, public investment in infrastructure that has a high pay-off even in good times must make sense.

David Newbery is emeritus professor of economics at Cambridge University

Michael Wickens
York University

If the government has made a mistake, it is in cutting capital expenditures – expenditures that have to made at some time and would be cheaper to do now than in the future. This could be debt financed. If the government clearly explained this strategy, I believe that the market would not charge higher rates for this additional borrowing. Such a strategy, not reneged on, would help.

Michael Wickens is professor of economics at the University of York

Hashem Pesaran
Cambridge University

My views have not changed – but this does not mean that I have agreed with this government’s obsession with credit ratings and fiscal reductions at the expense of growth-inducing policies. I was in favour of taking account of the possible adverse effects of large and unsustainable government deficits on borrowing costs and financial stability. I believe this government’s policies have not followed the balance I had in mind when I signed the letter.

Hashem Pesaran is professor of economics at Cambridge University

Tim Besley
London School of Economics

I would prefer to see government resources used in a targeted way and there may be creative ways of using the government balance sheet.  For my part, I am particularly keen to have more focus on housing in the near term.

John Vickers
Oxford University
Thanks, but I’ll pass on this.

John Vickers is professor of economics at Oxford University. He has criticised the government for watering down his recommendations for reform of the banking sector

Costas Meghir
Yale University

There is a huge opportunity to carry out important infrastructure projects and improvements in education. Currently both capital and labour are very cheap and available; there is little danger of crowding out private investment; and infrastructure and human capital spending properly thought through (not roads leading to nowhere or just beautiful school buildings but targeted educational interventions and projects useful to economic activity, such as airports and transport) can have high returns in the future making the whole enterprise profitable.

Kenneth Rogoff
Harvard University

I have always favoured investment in high-return infrastructure projects that significantly raise long-term growth.

Kenneth Rogoff is professor of economics and Thomas D Cabot Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University

Christopher Pissarides
London School of Economics

Professor Pissarides was unable to contribute to this feature, but these words are an edited extract from an open letter he wrote to George Osborne published in the New Statesman of 17 October 2011.

I know you worry about the deficit but I think that you worry about it too much. Keynesianism of the kind that guided policy after the Second World War no longer works, but there are still lessons in it for us. Worrying too much about the deficit in a recession makes the recession worse. The problem with a recession is that it punishes a relatively small number of people and it punishes them a great deal. The unemployed, new school leavers and ethnic minorities bear the brunt of it. The cost of recession to them is not only lower income, but loss of self-esteem, loss of skill and damaged future career paths. Less concern about the deficit and more attention to the economy’s ability to create jobs will reduce unemployment and improve well-being.

Your plan for deficit reduction should start the spending cuts gradually and respond to the state of the economy. It should go deeper only when the recovery is more robust. A more flexible approach to the cuts is good both for economic growth and for the size of the deficit.

And the one who backed Osborne

Albert Marcet
Barcelona Graduate School of Economics

I am quite sure there is no room for Keynesian-type policies to encourage growth in the fourth year of a recession; there is virtually no economic theory that will support that. I see no urgency to change the schedule in deficit reduction. The UK cannot unilaterally change the fact that there is a global recession, so growth will be below average. Furthermore, there is the danger of becoming the focus of the market’s speculation if there is any change in the commitment to reduce the public deficit.

Albert Marcet is research professor at the Barcelona Graduate School of Economics

Support for Chancellor George Osborne has fallen as the UK's recession has deepened. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.