Ed Miliband's speech on the economy: five key points

The Labour leader adapts Obama's "growing from the middle out" and calls for a "recovery made by the many, not just a few".

Ed Miliband will head to Bedford today to deliver the major speech on the economy that I first reported on The Staggers earlier this week, followed by a joint Q&A with Ed Balls at a training centre. 

It's unclear whether the speech will contain any new tax or spending commitments (although Jon Cruddas promised Newsnight last night that it would feature "a major, substantive piece of economic policy"), it will, according to pre-released extracts from Labour, offer "a choice between two different visions of our economy". 

"The Conservative vision of a race to the bottom in wages and skills, rewarding those at the very top but leaving everyone else squeezed as never before. Or the One Nation Labour vision." In an interview in today's Guardian, Miliband elaborates on this theme.

So, ahead of the speech at 10:45, here are five of the key points from the pre-released extracts and the interview. 

1. You've never had it so bad

Miliband's decision to make the speech in Bedford is an allusion to Harold Macmillan's famous 1957 address in the same town in which the Conservative prime minister declared: "you've never had it so good". 

Today, the Labour leader will say, millions across Britain fear "they will never have it so good again". 

Small businesses are working harder than ever before. People are working harder than ever before. But for far too many, wages are falling and prices are rising.

"Far from feeling they have never had it so good, millions across Britain today fear 'they will never have it so good again'. The question that people ask me the most is 'how do we turn this round?'"

It this bleak outlook - the Resolution Foundation reported yesterday that living standards will not return to pre-recession levels until at least 2023 - that will shape Miliband's policy priorities. 

2. Policy without a price tag

With less money around to spend and Labour wisely holding back its tax and spending commitments until the state of the public finances is clear, Miliband will outline alternative means of building a fairer economy and society. Returning to the territory of "predistribution" (although probably without using that word), he will say that a Labour government would take action to:

- "break the stranglehold of the big six energy suppliers

- stop the train company price rip-offs on the most popular routes

- introduce new rules to stop unfair bank charges

- cap interest on payday loans."

3. Miliband channels Obama: "growing from the middle out"

At yesterday's PMQs, Miliband channelled Ronald Reagan, asking David Cameron his own version of the US President's famous question to Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential debate: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" 

"At the end of the parliament, will living standards be higher or lower than they were at the beginning?", Miliband asked the PM.

In his Guardian interview, Miliband borrows from another US President, Barack Obama, and offers his account of what Obama calls "growing the economy from the middle out". He says: 

"We need a recovery made by the many, not just a few at the top. A recovery made by building, not squeezing, the middle. The government's economic strategy consists of squeezing the middle further, a race to the bottom and trickle down from the top."

Miliband notes that past recoveries have been driven by the middle class. 

"Henry Ford used to say: 'I have to pay my workers enough so they can buy the cars they are producing.' There was a British equivalent in relation to Macmillan: the houses were built, but people had the wages to buy or rent the houses."

4. Mansion tax: we're looking into it

Asked by the Guardian whether he will adopt a version of Vince Cable's "mansion tax", Miliband replies: "We have said we will look at the idea of mansion tax. Ed Balls was right to say that and we have said we would work with the government to make it happen."

The confirmation that Labour is exploring a mansion tax as part of its policy review is encouraging. Here at the NSwe've long argued that the burden of taxation should be shifted from income towards wealth and assets (see NS editor Jason Cowley's 2010 cover story on the subject). Wealth taxes are harder to avoid than those on income (even the most determined tax avoider cannot move his or her mansion to Geneva), are progressive (wealth is even more unequally distributed than income), and benefit the economy by shifting investment away from unproductive assets and towards wealth-creating industries. For the psephologically minded, it's also worth noting that they're popular. A Sunday Times/YouGov poll found that 63 per cent of the public (including 56 per cent of Tories) support a mansion tax, with just 27 per cent opposed.

5. Cameron's "global race" is a "race to the bottom"

Ever since his address at last year's Conservative conference, no David Cameron speech or interview has been complete without a reference to "the global race" facing Britain. But Miliband will denounce the Prime Minister's vision as one defined by a "race to the bottom". 

"David Cameron talks about a global race. And it is essential that we can compete with China and India and others. But I have to tell you, Britain won't win a race to the bottom by competing in the world as a low skill, low wage economy.

"We were promised that we could have growth and a lower deficit. In fact, we've had almost no growth and the deficit is rising again. But David Cameron's failure is not simply a failure of economic management or judgement. It is a failure to understand how wealth is created and an economy succeeds.

"We cannot go on with an approach that simply promises more of the same: year after year of squeezed living standards for the majority of working people. Because it's wrong for them and because it's wrong for our economy."

Ed Miliband will call for "a recovery made by the many, not just a few" in his speech on the economy in Bedford. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?