To have a clear line on the economy, Miliband needs a line on the unions

Labour policy formation is one long seminar that skirts around an obvious obstacle to reform.

It is good news that unemployment has fallen again. The government will be pleased; Labour will counsel caution. It is too early to identify a trend in employment growth. Inflation was up yesterday, so the decline in real wages and the squeeze on low-income households continues. The Bank of England has downgraded its growth forecast for 2013. Only around 20 per cent of the cuts originally envisaged in George Osborne’s "Plan A" have been implemented so far and a whole new set of cuts will be announced in the Autumn Statement on 5 December. There are always reasons not to be cheerful.

But that is a substantial part of Labour’s problem when it comes to the economy. It has become tactically reliant on gloom, even when Ed Miliband insists his strategic vision – the "One Nation" proposition – is inspiring and optimistic.

A hazard for the Tories, as I’ve noted before, is that the economy will appear to recover a bit on paper, in a way that emboldens ministers to tell people they are better off and that the plan is working, but without the public experiencing a tangible improvement in their circumstances. Wage stagnation makes it quite likely many people will feel poorer in 2015 than they did when the coalition came to power. The Chancellor or Prime Minister insisting voters are better off than they know – because, for example, the long-term prospects for fiscal sustainability are mildly improved - will just reinforce the sense that Conservatives dwell on a different, more expensively furnished planet.   

For Labour to capitalise on that weakness they need to meet certain tests. They need to demonstrate that they understand that public money doesn’t grow on Treasury trees; that it comes from real people’s pockets. Even if the pooling of that resource for good social ends is a desirable political project, consent for that harvest can’t be taken for granted. Crucially, the mechanism for allocating those funds cannot be seen as wasteful or self-serving.

In other words, Labour needs to sound assertive in its ambitions to reform the state. (That isn’t the same thing as shrinking the state, but it probably requires some recognition that the urge to expand the state as the default answer to social problems looks implausible in the current climate.)

There has been a whole lot of discussion in this area recently. See this from earlier in the week, via the IPPR, and screeds on Labour List, guest edited this week by Jon Cruddas.  Reinforcing the urgency of the whole conversation is this report from the RSA and the SMF.

An essential, albeit quite technical observation from that analysis is that falling unemployment suggests that the "output gap" – the gulf between the economy’s current performance and its potential – is smaller than the Treasury has estimated. Crudely speaking, that suggests the portion of the deficit that won’t be simply burnt off by a return to growth is higher – it is structurally baked in harder than previously thought. On top of that are all sorts of bleak accounts of the mounting demographic pressures on society – the hard, upward pressure on health spending and pensions in particular.

One political conclusion from all this is that Labour should speak more openly and frankly about the scale of the fiscal challenge ahead and the requirement that public service delivery change in response. That has to be the safer option than the current trajectory, which is to concede in the vaguest possible terms that budget discipline is a recognised yet distasteful obligation without really engaging in the conversation about how it will be enacted.

In a perverse way, the difficulties presented by the long-term outlook give cover to Labour to move on from the necessarily short-term and abstract macroeconomic argument it has been engaged in for the past two years. It is entirely possible that Ed Balls has been right about the need for fiscal stimulus and also that no-one cares. The non-existent growth we might have had if different policies had been pursued in 2010 can’t be presented on the doorstep as a reason to vote Labour in 2015.

The Tories have a very different problem. No-one doubts their determination to make cuts, but their underlying motive and, increasingly, their competence in administering austerity are in doubt. The Conservatives have to tread carefully when it comes to advertising their intention to reform the state, because for many people that sounds like a euphemism for indiscriminate privatisation and public sector redundancies. That suspicion, expressed in opinion polls and focus groups, was a significant factor in decisions last year to scale down ambitious plans to reconfigure vast swathes of the public sector – with much more outsourcing to private companies – under a "Big Society" rubric. Such caution was a source of frustration to Steve Hilton, David Cameron’s strategic advisor, and a factor leading to his departure from Downing Street. Without Hilton the impetus for dramatic, visionary reform of the state has largely gone. The Tories' difficulties in persuading people they are reliable stewards of services will be exacerbated as budget pressure and a disorderly restructuring wreak havoc in the NHS.

There is an opportunity there for Labour, presuming Ed Miliband has the courage to seize it. Voters know that Labour cares about the public sector. Of course it does. Miliband could use that confidence as a cudgel to beat the coalition, accusing them of senseless vandalism. He could also use it as a platform to win support for what would be advertised as a fairer, more compassionate approach to reform  - one that is conducted with deference to the ethos of public service, without a fetishistic faith in private enterprise but in recognition of the fiscal challenge ahead.

In so doing he could kill the Tory charge that Labour are in denial about the deficit and national debt. Instead of saying, in abstract terms, that a Miliband government would take tough decisions, the opposition leader should talk up exciting ideas for innovation in the way services are delivered. He needs to find dynamic charities and social enterprises and go on about how their creativity shows the way forward. The very fact of advertising an interest in better, more efficient, more effective ways to get the kinds of outcomes Labour has traditionally relied on Whitehall to deliver contains in it the recognition of the need to get more for less out of public services. It swallows up the deficit denial charge whole without even having to rebut it directly.

There is an obvious obstacle to this path: trade union leaders won’t like it. Once you start talking about alternative mechanisms for delivering services, there will be people in the labour movement who smell Blairite conspiracy and crypto-Toryism under the bed. That will be the case even if Miliband goes out of his way to emphasise that reform will be conducted wholly in keeping with the traditional values of fairness and equality that have historically animated the left.

Senior figures around Miliband privately concede that this is a problem. They know that moving the party’s economic story beyond outraged rejection of the decisions George Osborne is making will require some account of public sector reform. They also know that the broad "One Nation" vision is hard to turn into a practical agenda for changing the way the state and the economy are organised without also having an agenda for the way labour is organised. As one shadow cabinet friend of Miliband puts it: "Before the election we’ll need a positive story about the role of unions in responsible capitalism." The Labour leader knows that story needs writing, but there never seems to be a good time to sit down and write it.   

Miliband’s cheerleaders on Labour blogs and in think tanks and seminars are the same – long on paradigms and re-imaginings of the role of government, short on specific reference to the unions. That will have to change before the party can draft a manifesto. Ideally, the unions themselves could start talking seriously and practically about imaginative ways to innovate in the provision of public services. They should do. They probably won’t. 

Ed Miliband addresses TUC members in Hyde Park last month after an anti-austerity march. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?