PMQs review: professor Miliband gives Cameron an economics lesson

The Labour leader had the stats on his side but will voters accept his distinction between 'good' borrowing and 'bad' borrowing?

It's often forgotten that Ed Balls isn't the only economist on the Labour frontbench; Ed Miliband also taught the subject at Harvard while on sabbatical from the Treasury and he gave David Cameron a suitably stern lesson at today's PMQs. In a stat-heavy assault on the coalition's economic record, he reminded Cameron that the economy had grown by just 0.4 per cent since October 2010 (it was expected to grow by more than five per cent), that the UK had grown more slowly than 17 of the G20 countries and that this was now the weakest recovery for more than a hundred years. 

Confronted by that record, Cameron played a bad hand as well as he could. He was aided by Labour MPs who foolishly cheered when he conceded that the economy shrank by 0.3 per cent in the most recent quarter, an error that the PM quickly pounced on. "Only honourable members opposite could cheer that news," he fumed. From there, he ridiculed what he called Labour's "three-point plan": "more spending, more borrowing more debt". 

After Miliband noted that the deficit so far this year was £7.2bn (7.3 per cent) higher than last year, Cameron replied, "if he thinks there's a problem with borrowing, why does he want to borrow more?" It is the question that Labour has struggled to answer since the election. The Tories' credit card analogy may be a hackneyed one but it is easier to explain to the electorate than Keynes's paradox of thrift. In response to Cameron, Miliband cried: "he's borrowing for failure!" The Labour leader's hope is that the public will distinguish between the coalition's 'bad' borrowing, driven by higher welfare bills, and his party's 'good' borrowing (a VAT cut, national insurance holiday, higher infrastructure spending and the like). But without explicitly declaring that Labour would borrow for growth (and explaining why), he risks reinforcing the impression that borrowing is always and everywhere a bad thing. 

Miliband, aware that polls show more voters continue to blame Labour (26 per cent) for the cuts than the coalition (21 per cent), has never conceded that his party would, at least temporarily, borrow more than the coalition. For now, with the public more worried about the disappearance of growth, he can avoid further scrutiny. But at some point before the election, Labour will need to say what its plans would mean for deficit reduction. Anything else will allow the Tories to claim they'd make "the same mistakes" all over again. 

Ed Miliband said that David Cameron was "borrowing for failure". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.