Boris Johnson: Drop the hair shirt approach, George Osborne

In the wake of the negative GDP figures, the London mayor joins the chorus of voices questioning austerity.

Et tu, Boris? On Thursday, Nick Clegg stuck the knife into George Osborne's reputation for economic strategy by declaring that the coalition had cut capital spending too harshly in its early days.

Yesterday, in the wake of GDP figures showing the economy shrank by 0.3 per cent in the final quarter of 2012 - pushing Britain closer to a triple-dip recession - Boris Johnson also publicly questioned the Chancellor's appraoch.

From Davos, he said it was time to "junk the rhetoric of austerity" in favour of boosting jobs and growth. "The single biggest inhibitor of demand is lack of confidence. If only some of the people in this room would invest some of the cash in their balance sheets we would see that confidence rewarded in a virtuous circle."

Johnson carefully moderated his criticisms by ostensibly directing them at the Bank of England, saying:

"There is huge potential in the UK. It is important we have the spirit of confidence. Some of the mutterings from Threadneedle Street are not the stuff to give the troops. We need investment in housing and transport, things that make a big difference."

While he supported Osborne's deficit-reduction plan, Johnson said he wanted more investment in growth-boosting infrastructure measures. He added that "the hair-shirt, Stafford Cripps agenda is not the way to get Britain moving again".

In the near future, the Guardian reports, Johnson's new economic adviser Gerard Lyons will publish the Mayor's "seven-point plan" for London, which includes building a new airport and hundreds of thousands of homes, as well as investing in transport infrastructure. 

Boris Johnson. Photo: Getty

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.