Economists slam Tory calls for cuts

The Keynesians strike back.

So, after last week's letter to the Sunday Times from 20 economists, supporting the Tory demand for the government to begin cutting spending this year, it's the turn of the Keynesians to strike back.

Today's Financial Times carries not one, but two letters from 67 economists in total, warning that early spending cuts could tip the economy back into recession and rebutting claims that the deficit is "out of control".

The second, written by Lord Skidelsky and signed by 57 others, including Joseph Stiglitz and our economics columnist, David Blanchflower, is the more significant.

Here are the key passages:

In urging a faster pace of deficit reduction to reassure the financial markets, the signatories of the Sunday Times letter implicitly accept as binding the views of the same financial markets whose mistakes precipitated the crisis in the first place!

They seek to frighten us with the present level of the deficit but mention neither the automatic reduction that will be achieved as and when growth is resumed nor the effects of growth on investor confidence. How do the letter's signatories imagine foreign creditors will react if implementing fierce spending cuts tips the economy back into recession? To ask -- as they do -- for independent appraisal of fiscal policy forecasts is sensible. But for the good of the British people -- and for fiscal sustainability -- the first priority must be to restore robust economic growth. The wealth of the nation lies in what its citizens can produce.

George Osborne's claim that the economic consensus favours the Tories has been exposed as false.

The decision to send the letter to the FT (it was originally rumoured that it would appear in this week's Sunday Times) was a canny one. It lends the letter a far greater degree of authority; and it appears in a title that also argues against the deficit hawks. The paper's leader today concludes:

Friday's letters are an embarrassment for the Tories, above all, who sought to capitalise on the first letter. They must learn -- soon -- that their desire for simple political messages is no excuse for nuance-free policy positions.

The FT is often mistakenly assumed to be a cheerleader for the free market, but it has actually endorsed Labour at every election since 1992. And it would be foolish of the Tories to count on its support this time round.

What is surprising is that this letters war has started at a time when the differences between the parties on trimming public spending have ostensibly narrowed. David Cameron has promised that a Conservative government would avoid "swingeing" cuts and Alistair Darling has insisted (against the wishes of Ed Balls) that any windfall from lower than expected unemployment must be used to reduce the deficit, not for a pre-election giveaway.

But with the economy as fragile as it is, the Tories' plan to begin cutting spending from this year remains deeply irresponsible. Any hope George Osborne had of presenting himself as a credible chancellor-in-waiting has evaporated.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

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