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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How can the left make the case for immigration?

All too often, we drift into telling people we want to convince that they just don't get it.

We don’t give the public enough credit. You’ll often hear their views dismissed with sighs in intellectual circles. In fact on most issues the public are broadly sensible, most are these days supportive of cutting the deficit and dubious about political giveaways, but in favor of protecting spending on the NHS and education. Yet there is one issue where most, “knowledgeable” folks will tell you the public are well out of step: immigration. 

With [today’s] net migration figures showing yet another record high, it is an ever more salient issue. On a lot of measures ‘too much immigration’ ranks highest as the number one concern (see Ipossmori). The ongoing rise of right wing political parties across Europe demonstrates that simply enough. But concerns about immigration don’t just sit with those with more extreme views, they’re also shared across the mainstream of public opinion. Yet unlike thinking on cutting the deficit or funding the NHS the public consensus that immigration is bad for Britain, flies flat in the face of the intellectual consensus, and by that I mean the economics. 

Given the intense public debate many a study has tried to spell out the economic impact of immigration, most find that it is positive. Immigration boosts the nation’s GDP. As the theory goes this is because immigrants bring with them entrepreneurialism and new ideas to the economy. This means firstly that they help start new ventures that in turn create more wealth and jobs for natives. They also help the supply chains to keep ticking. A example being British agriculture, where seasonal workers are are needed, for example, to pick the strawberries which help keeps the farms, the truckers and the sellers in business. 

Most studies also find little evidence of British jobs being lost (or displaced) due to immigrants, certainly when the economy is growing. Indeed economists refer to such “ “they’re” taking our jobs” arguments as the “lump of labour fallacy’. On top of all that the average migrant is younger than the native population and less likely to rely on welfare, so their net contribution to the state coffers are more likely to be positive than natives as they don’t draw as much state spending from pensions or the NHS. 

So why haven't the public cottoned on? Many progressive types dismiss such views as racist or xenophobic. But it turns out this is to misunderstand the public just as much as the public ‘misunderstand’ immigration. When you study people’s views on immigration more closely it becomes clear why. Far from being racist most people asked by focus groups cite practical concerns with immigration. Indeed if you go by the British Social Attitudes Survey a much smaller number of people express racist view than say they are concerned about migration.  

The think tank British Future broadly set out that while a quarter of people are opposed to immigration in principle and another quarter are positive about it the majority are concerned for practical reasons - concerns about whether the NHS can cope, whether there are enough social houses, whether our border controls are up to scratch and whether we know how many people are coming here in the first place (we don’t since exit checks were scrapped, they only came back a few months ago). But more than anything else they also have very little confidence that government can or wants to do anything about it. 

This truth, which is to often ignored, begets two things. Firstly, we go about making the argument in the wrong way. Telling someone “you don’t understand immigration is good for our economy etc etc” is going to get a reaction which says “this person just doesn't get my concerns”. Despite the moans of progressives, this is precisely why you won't hear left leaning politicians with any nous ‘preaching’ the the unconditional benefits of immigration.

More importantly, the economic arguments miss the central issue that those concerned with immigration have, that the benefits and effects of it are not shared fairly. Firstly migrants don’t settle homogeneously across the country, some areas have heavy influxes other have very little. So while the net effect of immigration may be positive on the national tax take that doesn't mean that public services in certain areas don’t loose out. Now there isn't clear evidence of this being the case, but that could just as well be because we don’t record the usage of public services by citizenship status. 

The effects are also not equal on the income scale, because while those of us with higher incomes scale tend to benefit from cheep labour in construction, care or agriculture (where many lower skilled migrants go) the lower paid British minority who work in those sectors do see small downward pressure on their wages. 

It’s these senses of unfairness of how migration has been managed (or not) that leads to the sense of concern and resentment. And any arguments about the benefit to the UK economy fail to answer the question of what about my local economy or my bit of the labour market. 

Its worth saying that most of these concerns are over-egged and misused by opponents of immigration. Its only a small factor in stagnating wages, and few local areas are really overrun. But the narrative is all important, if you want to win this argument you have to understand the concerns of the people you are trying to convince. That means the right way to make the argument about immigration is to start by acknowledging your opponents concerns - we do need better border controls and to manage demands on public services. Then persuade them that if we did pull up the drawbridge there is much we’d loose in smart entrepreneurs and in cultural diversity. 

Just whatever you do, don’t call them racist, they’re probably not.

Steve O'Neill was deputy head of policy for the Liberal Democrats until the election.