So what does a "one nation" welfare policy look like, Ed?

Osborne's benefit cuts will test whether Labour's new doctrine is more than just a slogan.

The mood in the Conservative Party may not have significantly improved as a result of the Autumn Statement but it has stabilised.

None of the problems that the party had before Wednesday – summarised in a sequence of by-election thrashings in recent weeks - have gone away. The news that George Osborne delivered to the House of Commons on Wednesday was unremittingly bad. The economy is expected to have shrunk over the course of this year. Unemployment, which has crept down in recent months, is forecast to rise again in 2013. Growth, when it returns, will be meagre. The Chancellor’s promises that the national finances would be repaired over the course of the current parliament are broken. 

So if Osborne drove the economy into a ditch, why did he appear to step out of the wrecked car on Wednesday with a smile on his face? He won the day in the parliament – no-one in Westminster seriously disputes that. Ed Balls fluffed his lines and never fully recovered his rhetorical poise. An off day doing a tough gig, aggravated by an old speech impediment, say the shadow chancellor’s allies. A fair-and-square defeat engineered by Osborne’s political cunning, say the Tories.

The allocation of points in verbal jousting in the Commons is largely irrelevant beyond that handful of people who have a professional duty to tune in live. MPs’ morale and press opinion are modulated by points scored in the chamber, but not in a way that has a measurable impact on voting intention.

The Tories are pleased with the way the day went because it showed Osborne back on his game after a long slump. Since he is their election strategist as well as the Chancellor, it matters a lot to Conservative MPs if he is judged to be a potent player of political games. Plainly, he still is.

As I wrote on the day, the deadliest political device in the Autumn Statement was the announcement of a Welfare Uprating Bill. This will enshrine in law a limit of 1 per cent to the amount a range of benefits can rise every year for three years (a cut in real-terms). This measure doesn’t require its own signature piece of primary legislation. The only reason for dedicating a tranche of parliamentary time to a single item in the Chancellor’s menu of deficit reduction measures is the intention to skewer Labour over the course of the debates.

The sub-inflation uprating does a lot of fiscal heavy lifting. If Labour opposes it – and it looks certain that in some form they will – multiple challenges ensue. They will need to explain whether they think £2.5bn per year ought to be taken from somewhere (or someone) else. If not, they can be accused of lacking determination to contain the deficit. Then there is the political damage that Osborne thinks can be inflicted by presenting Labour as a party that likes to lavish cash on workless layabouts. Opinion polls show Britain always receptive to that message.

I have written before about the dangers to the Tories of thinking that voters will reward them for flint-heartedness, even if it appears to meet a public appetite. Meanwhile, the Labour leadership is hopeful that the Chancellor has misjudged the impact of his benefit cuts, since a larger proportion of them fall on working families than Osborne ever admits.

In a recent New Statesman interview, Liam Byrne, the shadow work and pensions secretary, set out why and how he thinks welfare can be turned into a vote-winner for Labour rather than an electoral liability. In short, the strategy is to present the Tories as plunderers of the pockets of the very “strivers” on whose behalf they claim to act. That message, Byrne believes, will become all the more potent when the ugly social consequences of poorly targeted cuts start to show.

That appears to be the line of attack that the opposition is taking in response to the Autumn Statement. Labour has some solid data on its side in this argument, but public and tabloid media attitudes will not be turned easily. If it happens it would indicate a significant change in the terms of political debate and a substantial strategic setback for the Tories. The moment when a big, headline-grabbing welfare cut stops being perceived by a majority of voters as necessary and starts looking plain vindictive is probably the point at which the Conservatives’ moral authority to run the country at a time of austerity is irrecoverably lost. Osborne clearly believes he can swing the axe pretty hard without crossing that compassion threshold.

Navigating this debate will be the first proper test of Ed Miliband’s "one nation" philosophy. This new defining creed for the Labour Party was revealed to approving reviews in the leader’s annual conference speech in October but hasn’t been much developed since. It has, like past slogans, been crow-barred into press releases, massaged into speeches and dangled from parliamentary questions. It isn’t yet identified with a set of ideas or the beginnings of a policy platform.

This makes senior Labour people nervous. Although the idea is only a couple of months old there is already fear that one-nation will get stuck on the page and not evolve into a practical project that expresses the party’s position on key issues - such as welfare reform.

So what might a one-nation response to the coalition’s plan to raise benefits by 1 per cent annually look like? If I understood Miliband’s conference speech correctly, especially the passages on post-war reconstruction as the guiding spirit for Britain’s recovery from financial crisis, I imagine the basis of his welfare policy would be an attempt to restore legitimacy to the very idea of social security with a patriotic appeal to solidarity in a time of economic emergency.

It would probably start with a steely denunciation of coalition policy as a cynical device to turn different groups of British people against each other in a brutal competition for limited budget resources. It would decry the language that Osborne uses to promote his welfare cuts as dishonest, since he pretends that only the workless are affected, and dishonourable, since he assumes that those without jobs are choosing "a life on benefits," when the majority are victims of an economic calamity that deprives them of the opportunity to work.

It would point out that, in reality, those out of work who depend on benefits, those in work who depend on benefits and those who receive no benefits at all but feel short of cash are not in some zero-sum-game race. It would assert instead that they are in a common economic and social endeavour. They are one nation with a collective interest in maintaining a functional welfare safety net. Funding social security would then be cast as a positive choice Britain makes because it is civilised country that does not casually tolerate children going hungry and homeless.

Having established those moral imperatives and, thereby, having reassured the wing of the Labour Party that has waited years for a leader to say such things with authentic passion, this hypothetical one-nation policy doctrine would move onto the subject of responsibility and affordability. It would point out that free-riding – the acceptance of benefits without contribution or commitment to work – betrays the spirit of solidarity just as does the refusal to provide for those desperately in need. It would accept the prospect that centralised, state-administered handouts might not be the most effective way to resolve stubborn social problems, nor the most cost-efficient. It would point out that the re-legitimisation of social security can only happen when the recipients feel some involvement in the decisions being made about their future and when those who pay for it all believe everything possible is being done to maximise the social return on their investment.

That would mean embracing the power of innovation – looking at new ways to help the jobless into work and experimenting to see which incentives are most effective. It would not, for example, reject out of hand the Work Programme – the government’s project to use private companies, social enterprises and charities as alternative providers of welfare-to-work support (although it would reasonably attack the implementation and design of the existing scheme).

In short, a one-nation welfare policy would shamelessly steal David Cameron’s "big society" rhetoric. It would assert a higher moral authority to make the idea work on the grounds that Labour can be trusted to reshape state provision without ulterior ideological motives. It would claim that Labour is the real big society party, not because deep down it sees state spending as a form of wickedness that infantilises citizens and suffocates enterprise but because it recognises that public services can be made more effective and popular by modernisation and innovation – which means importing new ideas from outside the closed shop. Because Labour intrinsically believes in a public sector ethos it has the authority to negotiate a grand bargain with the private sector to deliver services in a way that honours that ethos.

As I’ve argued before, the way Labour will achieve credibility on the deficit is not by simply declaring itself willing in theory to make cuts and not in practice saying which ones. Fiscal prudence can be signalled more profoundly by Labour proving it is sincerely interested in new, practical ways to get more for less out of public services.

I have no idea if this busked meander around an imaginary one-nation welfare line would work. It might just alienate everyone – the left would denounce the call for reform as a Blairite revanche; the right would see the appeal to solidarity as crypto-Bolshevism. It would, at least, mark a significant divergence from the established tone of political debate. It would also signal a refusal to fight the battles ahead on Osborne’s terms.

The confidence that there are no other terms is the real reason why the Chancellor and his allies have come away from the Autumn Statement feeling discreetly rather pleased with themselves. Perhaps they are right. But if there is another way of looking at the political challenge facing the country – a more optimistic, imaginative one that appeals to voters' better instincts and not their basest fears – Miliband rather urgently needs to say what it is. He needs Ed Balls to sign up to it. And they both need to express it in some manner other than the lifeless subject heading on yet another one-nation email from the Labour Party press office.

Labour Party leader Ed Miliband addresses workers at Islington Town Hall on 5 November in London. 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?