Osborne’s secret desire

The Chancellor is a flawed visionary. Labour can learn from his strengths and his weaknesses.

George Osborne has a secret desire – to turn the UK into Germany. Look back at his speeches and statements before the election, and he makes it clear, with admirable clarity, that he wants to turn the UK into an economic mirror image of itself. His long-term vision is of an economy where exports outstrip imports, where the popular inclination is to save rather than indulge in debt-fuelled spending, where investment in the real economy is flourishing, and where, of course, the public finances are incontrovertibly sound.

The Chancellor has even gone so far as to say that these are the leading benchmarks against which the success of a Conservative government will be judged. Expect Oktoberfest and decent World Cup performances to feature in the next Queen's Speech.

Does Labour have an equivalent vision? The sorry answer must be "no". So focused was the last government, maybe understandably, on the immediate crises of banks and public finances that little time was given to thinking longer term. The one exception was Peter Mandelson, who began tentatively outlining the hope of an economy built around high-growth, low-carbon sectors, but certainly nothing against which one could benchmark progress. The leadership campaign, fuzzy and symbolic as much of it was, was unable to get down to the real nitty-gritty of long-term economic policy despite an early attempt by David Miliband.

Of course, the commitment to reduce inequality, regulate finance and address regional imbalances that Ed Miliband, the new Labour leader, outlined in his conference speech is a long-term economic vision of sorts. But these are core progressive aspirations that are far more about redressing the damaging consequences of decades of neoliberalism than they are about plotting a post-crisis course for economic survival in what is bound to be a hellishly competitive global market.

Politically, maybe this doesn't matter. It could be that the coalition will fall apart under a series of tactical strikes by Labour rather than by posing one strategic vision against another. But this would seem a risky plan. An opposition, much like a government, needs a visionary set of goals to inspire it through the long months and years of political slog. It also needs an overarching narrative that explains the past and shapes the future to give its electoral offer coherence and, most importantly, to make it look like a serious government-in-waiting. And, should one actually get into government, it always pays to have done your most serious thinking beforehand.

But this goes beyond party politics. Few in the policy world, let alone among the wider public, have cottoned on to quite how threatening the economic situation is for the UK. Economic power is shifting eastwards to countries and companies with access to vast resources of finance and labour and, increasingly, know-how. Without a thorough policy debate about what role the UK can play in this new world, we risk sleepwalking into a spiral of economic decline.

This would not be without precedent – poor policymaking and some terrible business decisions in the postwar years left the UK trailing competitors in North America and Europe and set the stage for the crisis of the 1970s. Labour has a heavy obligation to engage in hard thinking and do some tough questioning of long-term Tory plans.

The new leadership could do worse than start with Osborne's own vision. A UK economy built around higher savings, exports, business investment and stable public finances is certainly nothing to be sneezed at. There are difficult questions to be asked about how realistic such goals are, given that they run so much against the grain of the UK economy's characteristics built up over many years.

Transforming this country into one of the world's export economies is a tough call when other countries are already well ahead of the UK in this game and when the risks of protectionism remain high. But as ideals at which to aim, they are a worthy starting point, and mark a clear break with a pre-crisis model that now seems unlikely to re-emerge in its full previous glory, and would not be welcome if it did.

But it is in the route map to achieve these goals that Osborne's vision is so weak, creating the opportunity for Labour to seize political advantage by developing a much stronger map of its own. The Chancellor seems convinced that a retread of the policies of the 1980s is the key to a German-style economy. He in effect said precisely this during his Mais Lecture back in February. Unleash a "supply-side revolution", akin to the one engineered by Howe and Lawson, through lower business tax and higher skills, and watch the investment flood in to new business and drive up exports.

There are many problems with his approach, not least that Osborne seems to be doing as much to terrify investors as attract them. But more fundamentally, it bears little relation to the route that Germany took to build its model. Naturally, the Germans always had a healthy respect for free markets and competition. But one cannot overlook the central role that the publicly owned KFW investment bank plays in maintaining high levels of long-term investment. Nor should we ignore the role that genuinely bold skills policies and works councils play in ensuring competitiveness in export markets. Nor the role that a huge research body such as the Fraunhofer Institute plays in constant business innovation. No policies on an equivalent scale are likely to emerge soon from a government that seems pathologically averse to anything that might be judged interventionist or might carry a cost.

It is here that Labour can begin to fashion a genuine post-crisis, long-term vision – one that might embrace some or all of Osborne's vision, but then plots a course based on a cool assessment of what has worked in the real world of the great exporters, rather than what the Chancellor's rosy reading of the Thatcher era and dogmatic antipathy to the state might suggest.

Adam Lent is head of economic and social affairs at the TUC.

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.