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

Photo: Getty Images
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We need to destroy Isil, yes. But the Prime Minister has no plan

And so, until there is a better plan on the table, I will vote against bombing Syria, says Owen Smith.

There are no decisions we make as MPs more important than whether we commit our country to combat, with its inevitable loss of military and civilian lives. That is a view shared by MPs of all parties in the House of Commons, who treat their responsibility on this question with the utmost seriousness. I have no doubt, therefore, that the Prime Minister and all those who have concluded that we should enter more fully into combat in Syria, starting with bombing the Isil/Daesh stronghold Raqqua, have done so after careful consideration, believing that this action is necessary to protect the security of the UK, through defeating Isil and bringing stability to Syria.

However, I respectfully disagree with them, and I will not be supporting a motion to bomb, based on the arguments brought forward by the Prime Minister last week.

My opposition is not rooted in pacifism, it is a hard headed and finely balanced judgment based on what I think the likely strategic, security and military effects of our involvement are.

The Prime Minister is right to set out objectives to defeat Isil and the formation of a stable, inclusive government in Syria.  These are aims that we all should share and at some point the use of British military force may well be required to achieve that outcome.  I might well support military action if a comprehensive and serious plan were put to parliament by the Prime Minister.  However, the case that Cameron currently proposes singularly fails to explain to the country how bombing will achieve his twin objectives. In fact, he is equally hazy on both the end state he desires and the end game to deliver it, and even on the question of military action, it is the Opposition's job to point to holes in the government’s argument.

Though I, like most MPs, am no military expert, I have studied these issues with great care and, along with many military and diplomatic experts, I cannot see that that Britain adding around an extra 10 per cent per cent bombing capacity (we will contribute six to 10 planes) to the US, French and other forces’ capabilities is likely to make a truly telling contribution to what we can all agree should be an agreed military objective: degrading and defeating Isil.  Especially given that there have already been around 3,000 air strikes against Isil in Syria.

I am sceptical that our weaponry is significantly more effective than that of the US, however excellent our personnel. I am also sceptical that bombing can avoid civilian casualties. And am wholly unconvinced that bombing, without significant, committed, united and effective ground troops to hold and build on the territory cleared by the bombs, will deliver the objective. It may not even be enough to chase Isil out of their stronghold in Raqqa. If the Prime Minister had been able to build a coalition of support from neighbouring countries of Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and others, willing to commit troops on the ground to take and hold ground cleared by air strikes then the equation would be very different. However, the current coalition is incomplete, and the ground troops insufficient.

Cameron has talked of there being perhaps 70,000 men under arms in opposition to Isil and ready to engage on the ground, but this does seem to me, as to many others, to be an optimistic assessment. Evidently, some of the anti-Isil and anti-Assad forces can be effective, as the Kurdish militias (the YPG) showed in driving back Isil forces from the northern town of Kobani last year, under cover of US planes. But these successful moments of defence have been few and far between and have mostly either involved these Northern (Rojava) Kurdish fighters or their ethnic countrymen from Iraq, the US-trained Peshmerga. Neither group is in close proximity to Raqqa and both see their primary objective as securing a Kurdish homeland from Syria, Iraq and Turkey. Other groups, some suggest as many as a hundred, are fighting across the region, but have a wide variety of allegiances and aims, tribal and religious, including two powerful groups that are off-shoots of Al-Quaida.  So it seems clear that the Prime Minister’s current proposals offer no realistic prospect of ground forces securing territory in and around Raqqa, which will ultimately be necessary to effectively neutralise the Isil threat, both regionally and internationally.

Nor is it clear to me what Cameron hopes Bashar al Assad will do in the event of increased bombing of Isil.  Assad is currently fighting on several fronts, against Isil, against the Kurds and against other groupings, some of them the ‘moderates’ the PM hopes will help. It remains uncertain as to whether Assad will view the bombing as an opportunity to intensify his fight with Isil, or to crush the moderates whose main goal is to depose him.

Perhaps more important a reason to oppose this action than the apparent holes in the military strategy, is the lack of a plan for what comes after. The current situation on the ground, provides scant hope for a peaceful and inclusive government to emerge, even in the event of Isil being eradicated. Far more likely is the continuation of pre-existing conflicts and the emergence of new crises from the rubble of Raqqa. British bombs might hasten the end of this phase of the conflict, if supported by a real and reliable land army, but it is only diplomatic, financial and, crucially, regional political pressure that stands a chance of any form of stability.

Maybe these questions would shrink in size if I truly felt our security at home would be increased by our bombing Isil in Syria.  But I do not.  Isil is a terrorist organisation, but it is also an insurgent army, an idea and a brand. It’s monstrous reach out of Syria, to Paris most tragically, but potentially to any of our towns and cities, may well be in planning, arming and instigating. And I am sure that the Security Services could draw evil, concrete connections between Raqqa and the Bata’clan. But Isil’s reach, and its strength, is intangible too: in its propaganda and cultural call to arms.

The only way we can be sure of defeating the Isil threat to our streets and in the region, is to find a long term political solution in Syria.  Unfortunately in my judgement, the proposals put in front of us to vote on this week do not offer that potential.  The prime route to ensuring that Isil’s capacity to threaten Western Europe is destroyed is to build on the recent peace talks in Vienna, with the aim of constructing a concerted international strategy on defeating Isil.  For this to be successful, global and regional partners must play a central part in the strategy, showing that the world is united in opposition to the poisonous ideology of Isil. And Arab nations, with Sunni majorities, must be in the vanguard of both peace talks and any military action.  

Finally, I repeat that these are judgements, not facts, and I may well be proved wrong. But I reach my conclusion as an internationalist, a European and someone who loves France and the French people. Their call for us to join with them is, for this MP, by far the most compelling to step up our engagement to actual combat at their side. But it is neither unpatriotic nor cowardly for us not to do so. The UN Resolution and NATO Treaty invoked by France, call on us to engage in ‘such action as it (the individual member states or NATO as a whole) deems necessary, including the use of armed force’. That tells me that any action our Government undertakes, including bombing, will be legal. But is does not tell me whether it will be strategic and wise, politically or militarily. And just as we cannot outsource our defence to our allies in the US or France, nor too can we outsource our judgement.

And so, until there is a better plan on the table, I will vote against. 


Owen Smith is Labour MP for Pontypridd and Shadow Secretary of State for Work & Pensions.