FT story raises more questions about “independent” OBR

Office for Budget Responsibility made late changes that helped Osborne and co score political points

This week's New Statesman leader -- "This government must strive to make its cuts accountable" -- expresses concerns over the independence of the newly created Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR). In it, we suggest that the OBR's decision to "rush out" a positive statement on job losses, a day after leaked Treasury data pointed to 1.3 million job losses across the private and public sectors, was worrying at best.

Now we learn, thanks to the Financial Times front-page lead this morning, that the OBR made "last-minute changes to its Budget forecasts that had the effect of reducing the impact of the emergency Budget on public-sector job losses".

According to the paper, the government has acknowledged this late change, which allowed George Osborne and David Cameron to claim that the coalition Budget would result in fewer job losses than an equivalent, albeit hypothetical, Labour Budget.

Blogging on the story, the FT's Alex Barker writes:

The reasons for the revisions are even more surprising than the end result. Without telling anyone about the changes, the OBR assumed that George Osborne would:

1) Cut state contributions for public-sector pensions (an assumption that pre-empts the conclusions of John Hutton's pension commission)

2) Put the brakes on promotions in the public sector (even though the Chancellor has never announced such a policy)

There are three possible explanations: the independent OBR is taking orders from the Chancellor; practising economic telepathy; or inserting random policy into its forecasts.

One solution to this apparent lack of autonomy and threat of political interference, we suggest in our leader, "is to have the Treasury select committee appoint the OBR's chair, which would make the body accountable to parliament, rather than the executive".

Either way, the OBR is fast losing credibility. Peter Hoskin notes over on the Spectator's Coffee House blog:

Forget the hubbub about Gove's schools list, the most damaging story for the government this week could well be on the cover of today's FT.

UPDATE: A PoliticsHome poll has found that just 16 per cent of voters believe that the OBR is genuinely independent: 69 per cent subscribe to the view that "in practice it is part of the government".

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Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

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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.