Why has Labour deserted Keynesian economics when the case has never been stronger?

The Coalition’s continued austerity drive maintains its stranglehold on British growth.

The Chancellor’s Comprehensive Spending Review surprised no one. Further cuts across the board, pay freezes for the public sector, more hoops for benefit claimants to jump through… and protection for elite sports and defence- Plan A all the way.

The Coalition’s continued austerity drive maintains its stranglehold on British growth, while their agenda of Hayekian reforms are less like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, and more like trying to cut wage costs by firing crew members as the waters rush in.

So how is plan A working out?

Fig 1: Source Econstats/IMF, 2013

Fig 2: Source: ONS: UK Public Sector Finances, Jun 2013 & OBR Economic & Fiscal Outlook, Mar 2013, Table 4.36 (pink=forecast)

Figure 1 shows how far the economy is operating below "potential growth"- the pace we would be growing at in normal times (neither boom nor bust). In the last 5 years, we have lost a compound GDP growth of almost 18 per cent. In current prices that equates to a shortfall of around £300bn - or almost three times the size of the current deficit, which incidentally - as can be seen in Figure 2 - is no longer falling.

And this is all against a backdrop of a labour market in tatters- chronically high joblessness (despite disingenuous statistics about private sector jobs), 20 per cent youth unemployment and what looks like a marked shift from cyclical to structural unemployment (temporary to long-term), as shown in the ONS’s latest report:

Fig 3: Source: ONS, Economic Review, June 2013

The figures above tell a story. The country’s resources- particularly labour- are unemployed, so our potential output is not realised, whilst individuals’ reduced spending power means less demand and less consumption - so the national income is lower. This causes an automatic reduction in tax receipts and an increase in social transfers which increase the deficit. And as growth stalls, the debt-to-GDP ratio is increased (via a smaller denominator), so the national debt looms ever larger.

Possibly the most shocking evidence of how bad things are can be shown by comparing our recent recovery to the recovery from the Great Depression of the 1930s:

Fig 4: Source: Eurostat, Maddison Project, 2013.

By this measure, the Great Depression doesn’t look so great, and we are deep in the worst economic crisis of the past century.

But since the very public bank bailouts and stimulus packages that followed the financial crash, policy makers the world over seem to have accepted that we are in a “new normal”. A crude reflection of this can be seen in the number of times the terms ‘crisis’, ‘recession’ and ‘new normal’ have been Google searched over the past few years.

Fig 5: Source: Google trends, accessed 2 July 2013

Why have crisis economics been abandoned in the middle of a crisis?

Instead, the economic discourse has defaulted back to the usual arguments between two dichotomised camps- call them what you want: Left-wing vs Right-wing, Socialists vs Free-marketeers, Aust(e)rians vs Keynesians, Nasty Party vs Scroungers, etc.

Some of the passengers on the Titanic might have thought that the ship would be faster and more efficient if it was not weighed down by the many third-class passengers, whose lowly ticket prices did not contribute as much to the vessel’s opulence. Equally, some may have felt that ticket prices should be lower, or that all passengers should have access to the ship’s offerings. But when she struck the iceberg, these quarrels were forgotten.

The longstanding question around the role of the state to intervene, distribute and employ is a fundamental one, but a state of crisis is not the time for fundamentalism.

Unfortunately, many on the right think that this is precisely the time for it. By dressing their long-held beliefs up as crisis-management tools, they can hold the country hostage “for the greater good”- the Tea Party’s obstinacy over taxation is one very public example of this, but it is just the tip of the iceberg…

The problem is, no right-wing economist has ever published a credible plan to recover from the kind of demand-driven shock we are facing, and recent attempts to contort their usual arguments for economic management into a path to recovery have been disastrous. Papers by Alesina & Ardagna, and Reinhart & Rogoff briefly showed that austerity could be expansionary and that government debt would hamper growth- before being thoroughly and publicly debunked.

But still we hear about the danger of inflation, the importance of encouraging job-creators by lowering top-rate taxes and the need to let austerity “do its work”, by shearing off the weak parts of the economy. These are not crisis management tools, they are the same arguments made by right-wing economists at all times!

But of course there is a custom-designed tool for our current situation.

Whilst their recoveries at year 5 may look different because of international policy choices, it remains the case that no economic crisis in history so perfectly mirrors our own as the Great Depression.

And written in response almost 80 years ago, Keynes’ General Theory clearly sets out the path for recovery in a world of low demand, private deleveraging and ineffective monetary policy: public borrowing to finance stimulus- if the private sector won’t create growth then the public sector must.

Fiscal policy is one of the most fundamental tools of government, and its use to rebalance the economy should not be thrown by the wayside because some people confuse it with a clandestine objective to impose socialism on the state.

With all this in mind, it was staggering to hear it announced that a Miliband Labour government would not borrow more to reverse Coalition spending cuts in 2015-16- in order to remain “credible”.

If the country has regained normal levels of growth by that stage, consolidation may be appropriate- but why explicitly rule out the use of one of the basic tools of government two years down the line?

If One Nation Labour aims to emulate its predecessors by courting Tory voters, abandoning the obvious case for fiscal stimulus is a new and irresponsible way of doing so.

Their change of course marks the retreat of the last bastions of Keynesianism from British politics: now we really are all in it together.

Meanwhile, the ship is still sinking…

Dom Boyle is a British economist.

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.