Keynes and the coalition: the great economic debate

Vince Cable’s claim that Keynes would have backed the coalition has enabled a more honest debate.

Vince Cable's attempt to reclaim Keynes for the coalition is the subject of both a Guardian editorial and Larry Elliott's economics column today. In his essay (which you can read in the current issue of the NS), Cable argues that the Master would have sided with the coalition, not Labour, on the critical question of deficit reduction.

Cable, as Elliott notes, is right to demolish the myth that Keynes believed governments should run deficits as a matter of course. Rather, he argued that governments should run surpluses in times of plenty in order to allow them to increase spending in times of want. As he succinctly put it: "The boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity at the Treasury."

Keynes would not have approved of the 2-3 per cent structural deficit with which Labour entered the crisis, a fact the left should not feel uncomfortable about. It was New Labour's failure to make the honest case for higher taxation that meant spending first galloped ahead of revenue. There is a left-wing, as well as a right-wing, critique of excessive deficit spending. (None of which should be used to obscure the fact that the record deficit was caused largely by a collapse in tax receipts and higher welfare spending due to increased unemployment.)

But in other areas, most notably employment, Cable's Keynesian defence of the coalition's austerity drive looks shakier. Were he alive today, Keynes's principal concern would be the effect on demand of high unemployment (2.5 million at the last count).

As Elliott writes:

[W]ould Keynes really be standing shoulder to shoulder with Cable and Osborne if he were alive today? More likely he would say that Britain has an unemployment problem rather than a deficit problem; that the impact of monetary policy is impaired by the problems of the banks; that the squeeze on consumer spending from tax increases and spending cuts will choke off private investment; and that the lesson of the US in the 1930s is that premature efforts at balancing the budget risk a double-dip recession.

Yet the merit of Cable's essay, as the Guardian's editorial notes, is that it elevates debate above the cynical falsehoods and clichés ("maxing out the nation's credit card") employed by David Cameron and George Osborne. The Business Secretary's piece is the only serious intellectual contribution any cabinet minister has made to economic discussion.

Keynes's biographer Robert Skidelsky and David Blanchflower will respond to Cable's essay (itself a response to Skidelsky's original critique of the coalition's fiscal retrenchment) in the next issue of the NS.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Michael Gove's quiet revolution could transform prisoner education

To anyone with a passing interest in prisoner education it is clear that current levels of education and training are simply inadequate.

Justice Secretary Michael Gove is quietly embarking on the most substantive prison education reform programme for a generation. In September, Gove announced that Dame Sally Coates would chair a review of the provision and quality of education in prisons, the results of which are expected shortly.

To anyone with a passing interest in prisoner education it is clear that current levels of education and training are simply inadequate. In 2014, Ofsted reported that education levels across the British prison system were inadequate, suggesting that “very few prisoners are getting the opportunity to develop the skills and behaviours they need for work.” Between 2011/12 and 2013/14 the number of prisoners achieving a level 1 or 2 qualification in Mathematics fell by a third, and since 2010 the number of prisoners studying for an Open University degree has dropped by 37%.

In light of these damning statistics, Gove’s calls for prisons to become “places of education” is to be welcomed. The most obvious result of improved opportunities for training and education is that upon leaving prison offenders will be more likely to secure employment and less likely to reoffend. Less tangible, but no less important, limited opportunities for education hinder aspiration and prevent the justice system from acting as a conduit to improving society at large. Too often offenders are unable to develop their potential as citizens and contribute accordingly. Education is a powerful force in building offenders’ confidence and helping to engage with their communities upon release: helping to break the cycle of offending.

In tandem with enhanced opportunities for education, skills and training, Gove has promised greater autonomy for prison governors. Currently, the Skills Funding Agency manages the Offenders’ Learning and Skills Service (OLASS) to connect offender education with mainstream provision. Speaking before the APPG on Penal Affairs, Dame Sally suggested that “many governors feel very frustrated by their lack of ability to have any say in the education delivered.  If we want the governors to be accountable, they have to have the autonomy to contract for this for themselves, or employ their own teaching staff.”

The principle of increased flexibility is a good one. A significant minority of prisoners already have qualifications and require opportunity to build upon them. The education pathways available to them will be quite different to those offenders who enter prison with limited numeracy and literacy skills. However, the high-profile failure of private suppliers to deliver even the most basic services, raises questions as to whether major outsourcing firms will be able to provide these.

In 2014, A4E prematurely pulled out of a £17m contract to deliver education and training to prisoners in 12 London prisons on the grounds that it was unable to run the contract at a profit. This was not the first time that A4E had prematurely terminated a prison education contract. In 2008 the firm ended a similar contract to provide education in eight Kent prisons, again citing huge losses.

Recognising such failures, the Prime Minister has argued that his government’s reform program would “allow new providers and new ideas to flourish”, but the steps to achieving this are unclear. Identifying the difficulty smaller providers – particularly those from the third sector – currently have in winning and delivering contracts is a far easier task than redesigning the contracting system to improve their chances.

There are three steps that could act as a starting point. First, a review of commissioning to ensure a plurality of providers, particularly from small and medium-sized organisations should be considered, with payments-by-results the favoured means of remuneration. Second, providers and experts should be empowered to contribute to the reform process that follows the Coates Review’s publication. Third, it is clear that while a universal standard of education must be set, providers and governors should be empowered to experiment and innovate to seek results above this. In sacrificing universality it may be possible to improve methods and achieve better results in future.

Reforming the prison system is not a task that will be easy, nor one that will be quick. To ensure its long-term success it is vital that education and skills providers’ voices are heard and that the government develops forums through which ideas can be shared. For too long talent, resources and time have been wasted through mismanagement and poor provision. Now is the time to reverse this and ensure that the justice system delivers rehabilitation and improved educational outcomes.