Dividing Lines: The economy

Continuing his series on the major policy divisions in politics, Rafael Behr tackles the economy.

What’s the issue?
This is the big one. When the coalition was formed it claimed its governing purpose was to rescue Britain from an economic emergency. The remedy devised by George Osborne was an immediate course of spending cuts to reduce the Budget deficit and limit the rise in public debt as a proportion of gross domestic product. The theory was that a shock-and-awe display of fiscal discipline would reassure international investors that Britain was a “safe haven” from global turbulence. Cutting the public sector is also meant to release growth potential in the private sector, which was thought to have been “crowded out” by state expansion under Labour.

Is it working?
No. The economy didn’t grow at all last year. It is 3.3 per cent smaller than at its boom-time peak. Osborne is on course to fail his self-imposed tests of credibility – eliminating the “structural” deficit (the part of government overspend that doesn’t vanish automatically when the economy is operating at full capacity) and reducing public debt as a proportion of GDP by the end of this parliament.

What went wrong?
The government says its inheritance from Labour was worse than previously thought and that the eurozone crisis has blown recovery off course. Labour says the rush to austerity has drained demand out of the economy; when companies and households were too indebted or too frightened to spend, the government should have stepped in to stimulate activity – hitting the gas instead of slamming on the brakes.

So, Labour would turn on the money taps again?
Economically, that is the logic of Ed Balls’s position but politically he is in a bind. Lots of people are persuaded that an underlying cause of the crisis was “Gordon Brown spending all the money”. Whenever Balls attempts to make his macroeconomic argument, he ends up trying to rehabilitate the reputation of a period in Labour’s record that even many on his own side think is better off left for dead. Besides, by the time of the next election, the public finances will be in such a woeful state that there will be no spare capacity to increase spending. The campaign will be about who cuts what and with what end in mind.

Couldn’t the government borrow to spend?
Yes. And it is quietly doing just that, because there is no growth. There is a case for saying that the low long-term interest rates available now make it a good time to borrow for investment in such things as housing and transport that would create jobs and strengthen our economic capacity.

Even Osborne has discreetly conceded the point that cuts alone won’t kick-start growth. In his Autumn Statement last year, the Chancellor said he would find £5bn for infrastructure investment, but the money has to be carved out by making cuts to other budgets. He has painted himself into a corner, insisting any dilution of austerity would be a disaster and portraying borrowing as inherently wicked. So, to be true to their own political script, the Tories have to pretend to be less reliant on borrowing than they are. It is higher now than at the last election, and rising. David Cameron recently claimed that the government is “paying down the debt” but by any measure it simply isn’t.

That’s a bit sneaky, isn’t it?
Very. The question is how long they’ll get away with it. There is a strong expectation that the credit-rating agencies will downgrade the UK this year, torpedoing Osborne’s “safe haven” claim. Balls’s problem is that he struggles to call out the Tories for relying on debt: his core macroeconomic analysis demands the same fiscal remedy. Intellectually, his position can be made coherent but it relies on a distinction between “good” Labour borrowing – premeditated to spur growth – and “bad” Tory borrowing – accidental, driven by a failed austerity plan. The difference is not immediately obvious to many voters.

Besides, no one doubts that the Tories at least want to limit public spending, while Labour risks looking like it wants to duck that challenge altogether. In order to reassure swing voters that it is a careful steward of taxpayers’ money, the opposition could end up accepting spending restraints that don’t permit the kind of stimulus that has been central to its macroeconomic prescription.

So Labour thinks we should be borrowing more but doesn’t feel comfortable admitting it, and the Tories are borrowing more but pretend they aren’t?
Pretty much. A vital difference is that many Conservatives think the government isn’t cutting budgets deeply enough. The Tory hawks think the way out of the growth impasse is on the “supply side”– cutting back on regulations and employment rights in the belief that excessive bureaucracy is stifling enterprise. Labour sees that as a sign the Tories are using the financial crisis as a pretext to pursue an old agenda of shrinking the role of government in public life. It doesn’t, Labour says, tackle the underlying problem of inadequate demand.

What do the Lib Dems think?
Their instincts are with Labour. Nick Clegg has conceded that infrastructure spending was cut too hard in the coalition’s early days. Yet within the broad outline of austerity the Lib Dems are lashed to Osborne’s mast; they sign off on his budgets.

That doesn’t sound very comfortable.
In this debate, no one is.


Rafael Behr's "Dividing Lines" series appears regularly in the New Statesman magazine.

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

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Intervention Trap

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.