Labour makes official complaint over Cameron's debt lies

Rachel Reeves writes to the UK Statistics Authority after Cameron claimed in a Conservative Party political broadcast that the coalition "was paying down Britain’s debts".

In last night's Conservative Party political broadcast, David Cameron boasted that the coalition "was paying down Britain’s debts". Except, of course, it's not. Since Cameron entered office, the national debt has risen from £811.3bn (55.3 per cent of GDP) to £1.11trn (70.7 per cent of GDP) and, owing to the lack of growth, the government is set to borrow billions more than Labour planned (the plan Cameron claimed would "bankrupt" Britain).

By 2014-15, the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that debt will have increased to £1.4trn (79 per cent of GDP). It's true that the coalition has reduced annual borrowing (the deficit) by 24 per cent since coming to power (from £159 in 2009-10 to £121.6bn in 2011-12), albeit by slashing infrastructure spending, but it's a flat-out untruth to claim that it's "paying down" our debts. 

In response, Labour's shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Rachel Reeves, a former Bank of England economist, has written to the chair of the UK Statistics Authority, Andrew Dilnot, asking him to investigate Cameron's misleading statement. It's worth noting that the Stats Authority has previously forced the Conservatives to correct their claim to have increased real-terms spending on the NHS "in each of the last two years", so there's a good chance of a critical response. 

Here's Reeves's letter in full. 

Andrew Dilnot CBE
Chair, UK Statistics Authority
1 Drummond Gate
London
SW1V 2QQ

24 January 2013

Dear Andrew

I am sure you will agree that it is vital that public debate is informed by accurate use of statistics.

However, in a Party Political Broadcast by the Conservative Party last night, the Prime Minister said:

“We are now halfway through the coalition’s time in government and in two and a half years we have achieved a lot but I know people don’t just want to hear from me, they want to know the facts… So though this government has had to make some difficult decisions, we are making progress. We are paying down Britain’s debts.”

As you will be aware, figures from the Office for National Statistics published this week show that the national debt is not being paid down, but is actually rising. Since this government came to office, public sector net debt has risen from £811.3 billion (55.3 per cent of GDP) in the second quarter of 2010, to £1,111.4 billion at the end of December 2012 (70.7 per cent of GDP).

The Office for Budget Responsibility has also forecast that public sector net debt will continue to rise and the government’s target to get it falling by 2015-16 will not be met.

This is not the first time government Ministers have made similar claims about the national debt. However, last night’s Party Political Broadcast is the first occasion I am aware of when the Prime Minister has made such a claim in a scripted broadcast. This suggests that the Conservative Party may be attempting to deliberately mislead the public about these statistics and the government’s record.

I would be grateful if you could bring some clarity to the situation and advise on how we can ensure that in the future debate on the national debt is accurate and based on the facts.

Yours sincerely,

Rachel Reeves MP

Shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Rachel Reeves.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.