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
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Theresa May's magic money tree is growing in Northern Ireland

Her £1bn deal with the DUP could make it even harder to push through cuts in the rest of the UK.

Going, going, gone...sold to the dark-haired woman from Enniskillen! Theresa May has signed a two-year deal with Arlene Foster, the DUP's leader, to keep her in office. The price? A cool £1bn and the extension of the military covenant to Northern Ireland.

The deal will have reverberations both across the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland specifically. To take the latter first – the amount spent in Northern Ireland in 2016/17 was just under £10bn. A five point increase in spending on health, education and roads is a fairly large feather in anyone's cap.

It transforms the picture as far as the fraught negotiations over restoring power-sharing goes. It increases the pressure on Sinn Féin to restore power-sharing so they can help decide exactly where the money goes. And if there's another election, it means that Arlene Foster goes into it not as the woman who oversaw the wasteful RHI scheme (a renewable energy programme that because of its poor drafting saw farmers paid to heat empty rooms) but as the negotiator who bagged an extra £1bn for Northern Ireland. 

Across the United Kingdom, the optics are less good for the (nominal) senior partner to the deal.

"May buys DUP support with £1 billion 'bung" is the Times"£1bn for DUP is 'just the start" is the Telegraph's splash, and their Scottish edition is worse: "Fury at 'grubby' deal with DUP". With friends like this, who needs the Guardian? (They've gone for "May hands £1bn bonanza to DUP to cling on at No 10" as their splash, FYI.) 

Not to be outdone, the Mirror opts for "May's £1bn bribe to crackpots" while the Scotsman goes for "£100 million per vote: The price of power".  Rounding off the set, the Evening Standard has mocked Foster up as Dr Evil and Theresa May as Mini-Me on its front page. The headline? "I demand the sum of....one billion pounds!"   

Of course, in terms of what the government spends, £1bn is much ado about nothing. (To put it in perspective, the total budget across the UK is £770bn or thereabouts, debt interest around £40bn, the deficit close to £76bn).

But only a few weeks ago Theresa May was telling a nurse that the reason she couldn't get a pay rise is that there is "no magic money tree". Now that magic money tree is growing freely in Northern Ireland. The Conservatives have been struggling to get further cuts through as it is – just look at the row over tax credits, or the anger at school cuts in the election – but now any further cuts in England, Scotland and Wales will rub up against the inevitable comeback not only from the opposition parties but the voters: "But you've got money to spend in Northern Ireland!"

(That £1bn is relatively small probably makes matters worse – an outlay per DUP MP that you might expect a world-class football club to spend on a quality player. It's tangible, rather like that £350m for the NHS. £30bn? That's just money.)

For Labour, who have spent the last seven years arguing, with varying degrees of effectiveness that austerity is a choice, it's as close to an open goal as you can imagine. Theresa May's new government is now stable – but it's an open question as to how long it will take her party to feel strong again.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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