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Labour must go for growth

Alistair Darling must use the pre-Budget report to explain why the Tories would take us deeper into

David Cameron believes the biggest economic challenge facing the country is government debt. He's wrong. The real challenge is delivering strong and sustainable growth.

This year the government deficit will amount to roughly 12.5 per cent of GDP. But this is the right approach in a recession. Government spending is compensating for a lack of private spending - as households repay debt and businesses either can't or won't invest (because banks won't lend). But the debt ratio is not unique and, indeed, is in line with the other G8 economies. Yes, we need to bring the debt and deficit down - but it is not the immediate or biggest challenge we face, and to reduce the deficit now would prolong the recession and pain to businesses and families.

The surest way out of the debt problem is economic growth - growth will boost tax revenues, reduce unemployment and hence government spending. A strategy for growth should be the focus of Alistair Darling's pre-Budget report (PBR).

Foremost in this strategy must be investment in the jobs and industries of the future. The UK has the potential to generate 400,000 jobs in green industries in the next few years. But there is no guarantee that hi-tech, high-skilled jobs will come to the UK. It is hard in the current economic environment for businesses and entrepreneurs with innovative and exciting ideas to secure funding for long-term investment. A national infrastructure, or investment bank, would enable government and business to act in partnership to build the future jobs the economy needs.

Second, to get growth back on track we must ensure that businesses and families can access bank finance at affordable rates. And, as we rebuild the economy, we must restructure the financial sector so that it cannot bring the economy to its knees again but instead fulfil the role it should provide - to channel savings to sensible investment.

The PBR should address these challenges directly, with legally enforceable lending targets for banks - focusing on money out of the bank door, not offers of loans at rates so extortionate that businesses can't afford to take them up. The lack of bank lending reflects a desire on the part of banks to rebuild their balance sheets, but without a strong business sector the banks will certainly incur further losses. Better instead for banks to improve their balance sheets through reduced bonus payouts. So, the PBR should also include a windfall tax on the excessive profits of banks or a 60 per cent rate of tax on bonuses of over £10,000. This would discourage payouts which are eroding bank capital, improve the public finances - which in large part have deteriorated because of support to the bailed-out banks - and begin to tackle the reckless bonus culture that got us in to this predicament.

Looking forward, there must be no return to "business as usual" in the banking sector - the "socially useless" functions of banks must be addressed. The PBR should include a review of the size and ownership model of our banks, including proposals to support the growth of building societies, and a commitment to look seriously at the remutualisation of Northern Rock.

But while it is essential that government does not withdraw the stimulus yet, it would be irresponsible not to commit to reducing the deficit as the economy recovers. Sound public finances are important for economic growth. Labour knows this, which it is why, between 1997 and 2006, the debt burden was cut from 42.5 to 36 per cent of GDP, reducing debt interest payments and freeing up money for investment in public services. Large budget deficits are needed during the recession to pump-prime the economy, but not when growth is back on track.

Through a combination of strong growth, tax increases and spending cuts, halving the budget deficit in four years is achievable but a credible plan for doing so is needed. At the moment, the right is winning the argument on how to achieve this, emphasising the burden that public spending will bear. Yet research by the think tank Compass shows that 78 per cent of people think the richest 10 per cent should pay at least the same percentage of their incomes in tax as the poorest. Moreover, the support for the new 50 per cent tax rate, and the growing discomfort around Tory proposals to reduce taxes for 3,000 millionaires by £200,000, shows that the country is more progressive than government gives them credit for. Deficit reduction must be shared between tax increases and spending cuts; and, again, growth will reduce the burden of the debt.

Contrast this growth approach with the rhetoric of George Osborne, the shadow chancellor. Osborne wants to cut spending right now, against all the historical evidence and against the international consensus. As Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, said on 23 November: "We recommend erring on the side of caution, as exiting [from stimulus plans] too early is costlier than exiting too late."

But Osborne is not listening to the evidence. His approach threatens the recovery by taking money out of the economy at precisely the time it is doing most good. The risks of a double-dip recession have not gone away, and would be higher if government withdraws - you need only look at Japan in the 1990s or the US in the 1930s to see that.

In reality, Cameron and Osborne's desire for cuts are motivated by an ideological zeal to reduce the size of the state, rather than an economically literate strategy to build a strong economy.

The PBR is an opportunity for Darling to put down a challenge to Osborne. Will the Tories invest in the jobs and technologies of the future? Will they have the courage to take on those in the City who still argue for light-touch regulation? Or will they stick with their siren call - "cut spending now"? The economy remains in recession and the global recovery is fragile. With an election fast approaching, Darling must set out Labour's strategy for growth and deficit reduction with an ambitious pre-Budget report.

Rachel Reeves is the Labour parliamentary candidate for Leeds West

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Getty
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Lexit: the EU is a neoliberal project, so let's do something different when we leave it

Brexit affords the British left a historic opportunity for a decisive break with EU market liberalism.

The Brexit vote to leave the European Union has many parents, but "Lexit" – the argument for exiting the EU from the left – remains an orphan. A third of Labour voters backed Leave, but they did so without any significant leadership from the Labour Party. Left-of-centre votes proved decisive in determining the outcome of a referendum that was otherwise framed, shaped, and presented almost exclusively by the right. A proper left discussion of the issues has been, if not entirely absent, then decidedly marginal – part of a more general malaise when it comes to developing left alternatives that has begun to be corrected only recently, under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.

Ceding Brexit to the right was very nearly the most serious strategic mistake by the British left since the ‘70s. Under successive leaders Labour became so incorporated into the ideology of Europeanism as to preclude any clear-eyed critical analysis of the actually existing EU as a regulatory and trade regime pursuing deep economic integration. The same political journey that carried Labour into its technocratic embrace of the EU also resulted in the abandonment of any form of distinctive economics separate from the orthodoxies of market liberalism.

It’s been astounding to witness so many left-wingers, in meltdown over Brexit, resort to parroting liberal economics. Thus we hear that factor mobility isn’t about labour arbitrage, that public services aren’t under pressure, that we must prioritise foreign direct investment and trade. It’s little wonder Labour became so detached from its base. Such claims do not match the lived experience of ordinary people in regions of the country devastated by deindustrialisation and disinvestment.

Nor should concerns about wage stagnation and bargaining power be met with finger-wagging accusations of racism, as if the manner in which capitalism pits workers against each other hasn’t long been understood. Instead, we should be offering real solutions – including a willingness to rethink capital mobility and trade. This places us in direct conflict with the constitutionalised neoliberalism of the EU.

Only the political savvy of the leadership has enabled Labour to recover from its disastrous positioning post-referendum. Incredibly, what seemed an unbeatable electoral bloc around Theresa May has been deftly prized apart in the course of an extraordinary General Election campaign. To consolidate the political project they have initiated, Corbyn and McDonnell must now follow through with a truly radical economic programme. The place to look for inspiration is precisely the range of instruments and policy options discouraged or outright forbidden by the EU.

A neoliberal project

The fact that right-wing arguments for Leave predominated during the referendum says far more about today’s left than it does about the European Union. There has been a great deal of myth-making concerning the latter –much of it funded, directly or indirectly, by the EU itself.

From its inception, the EU has been a top-down project driven by political and administrative elites, "a protected sphere", in the judgment of the late Peter Mair, "in which policy-making can evade the constraints imposed by representative democracy". To complain about the EU’s "democratic deficit" is to have misunderstood its purpose. The main thrust of European economic policy has been to extend and deepen the market through liberalisation, privatisation, and flexiblisation, subordinating employment and social protection to goals of low inflation, debt reduction, and increased competitiveness.

Prospects for Keynesian reflationary policies, or even for pan-European economic planning – never great – soon gave way to more Hayekian conceptions. Hayek’s original insight, in The Economic Conditions of Interstate Federalism, was that free movement of capital, goods, and labour – a "single market" – among a federation of nations would severely and necessarily restrict the economic policy space available to individual members. Pro-European socialists, whose aim had been to acquire new supranational options for the regulation of capital, found themselves surrendering the tools they already possessed at home. The national road to socialism, or even to social democracy, was closed.

The direction of travel has been singular and unrelenting. To take one example, workers’ rights – a supposed EU strength – are steadily being eroded, as can be seen in landmark judgments by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the Viking and Laval cases, among others. In both instances, workers attempting to strike in protest at plans to replace workers from one EU country with lower-wage workers from another, were told their right to strike could not infringe upon the "four freedoms" – free movement of capital, labour, goods, and services – established by the treaties.

More broadly, on trade, financial regulation, state aid, government purchasing, public service delivery, and more, any attempt to create a different kind of economy from inside the EU has largely been forestalled by competition policy or single market regulation.

A new political economy

Given that the UK will soon be escaping the EU, what opportunities might this afford? Three policy directions immediately stand out: public ownership, industrial strategy, and procurement. In each case, EU regulation previously stood in the way of promising left strategies. In each case, the political and economic returns from bold departures from neoliberal orthodoxy after Brexit could be substantial.

While not banned outright by EU law, public ownership is severely discouraged and disadvantaged by it. ECJ interpretation of Article 106 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) has steadily eroded public ownership options. "The ECJ", argues law professor Danny Nicol, "appears to have constructed a one-way street in favour of private-sector provision: nationalised services are prima facie suspect and must be analysed for their necessity". Sure enough, the EU has been a significant driver of privatisation, functioning like a ratchet. It’s much easier for a member state to pursue the liberalisation of sectors than to secure their (re)nationalisation. Article 59 (TFEU) specifically allows the European Council and Parliament to liberalise services. Since the ‘80s, there have been single market programmes in energy, transport, postal services, telecommunications, education, and health.

Britain has long been an extreme outlier on privatisation, responsible for 40 per cent of the total assets privatised across the OECD between 1980 and 1996. Today, however, increasing inequality, poverty, environmental degradation and the general sense of an impoverished public sphere are leading to growing calls for renewed public ownership (albeit in new, more democratic forms). Soon to be free of EU constraints, it’s time to explore an expanded and fundamentally reimagined UK public sector.

Next, Britain’s industrial production has been virtually flat since the late 1990s, with a yawning trade deficit in industrial goods. Any serious industrial strategy to address the structural weaknesses of UK manufacturing will rely on "state aid" – the nurturing of a next generation of companies through grants, interest and tax relief, guarantees, government holdings, and the provision of goods and services on a preferential basis.

Article 107 TFEU allows for state aid only if it is compatible with the internal market and does not distort competition, laying out the specific circumstances in which it could be lawful. Whether or not state aid meets these criteria is at the sole discretion of the Commission – and courts in member states are obligated to enforce the commission’s decisions. The Commission has adopted an approach that considers, among other things, the existence of market failure, the effectiveness of other options, and the impact on the market and competition, thereby allowing state aid only in exceptional circumstances.

For many parts of the UK, the challenges of industrial decline remain starkly present – entire communities are thrown on the scrap heap, with all the associated capital and carbon costs and wasted lives. It’s high time the left returned to the possibilities inherent in a proactive industrial strategy. A true community-sustaining industrial strategy would consist of the deliberate direction of capital to sectors, localities, and regions, so as to balance out market trends and prevent communities from falling into decay, while also ensuring the investment in research and development necessary to maintain a highly productive economy. Policy, in this vision, would function to re-deploy infrastructure, production facilities, and workers left unemployed because of a shutdown or increased automation.

In some cases, this might mean assistance to workers or localities to buy up facilities and keep them running under worker or community ownership. In other cases it might involve re-training workers for new skills and re-fitting facilities. A regional approach might help launch new enterprises that would eventually be spun off as worker or local community-owned firms, supporting the development of strong and vibrant network economies, perhaps on the basis of a Green New Deal. All of this will be possible post-Brexit, under a Corbyn government.

Lastly, there is procurement. Under EU law, explicitly linking public procurement to local entities or social needs is difficult. The ECJ has ruled that, even if there is no specific legislation, procurement activity must "comply with the fundamental rules of the Treaty, in particular the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of nationality". This means that all procurement contracts must be open to all bidders across the EU, and public authorities must advertise contracts widely in other EU countries. In 2004, the European Parliament and Council issued two directives establishing the criteria governing such contracts: "lowest price only" and "most economically advantageous tender".

Unleashed from EU constraints, there are major opportunities for targeting large-scale public procurement to rebuild and transform communities, cities, and regions. The vision behind the celebrated Preston Model of community wealth building – inspired by the work of our own organisation, The Democracy Collaborative, in Cleveland, Ohio – leverages public procurement and the stabilising power of place-based anchor institutions (governments, hospitals, universities) to support rooted, participatory, democratic local economies built around multipliers. In this way, public funds can be made to do "double duty"; anchoring jobs and building community wealth, reversing long-term economic decline. This suggests the viability of a very different economic approach and potential for a winning political coalition, building support for a new socialist economics from the ground up.

With the prospect of a Corbyn government now tantalisingly close, it’s imperative that Labour reconciles its policy objectives in the Brexit negotiations with its plans for a radical economic transformation and redistribution of power and wealth. Only by pursuing strategies capable of re-establishing broad control over the national economy can Labour hope to manage the coming period of pain and dislocation following Brexit. Based on new institutions and approaches and the centrality of ownership and control, democracy, and participation, we should be busy assembling the tools and strategies that will allow departure from the EU to open up new political-economic horizons in Britain and bring about the profound transformation the country so desperately wants and needs.

Joe Guinan is executive director of the Next System Project at The Democracy Collaborative. Thomas M. Hanna is research director at The Democracy Collaborative.

This is an extract from a longer essay which appears in the inaugural edition of the IPPR Progressive Review.