Miliband admits Labour would borrow more - now he needs to make the argument

The Labour leader should explain why borrowing for growth is the economically responsible course.

After his disastrous appearance on The World At One yesterday, it was a more relaxed Ed Miliband who took to the Daybreak sofa this morning. Asked about the ill-fated interview by presenter Lorraine Kelly and his refusal to say whether Labour would borrow more in the short term, he replied: 

Look, that happens. You do interviews; some interviews well, some interviews not so well. Look, I was asked a question about VAT and Labour's plans to cut VAT. I am clear about this, a temporary cut in VAT, as we are proposing, would lead to a temporary rise in borrowing. The point I was making yesterday was that if you can get growth going by cutting VAT, then over time you will see actually borrowing fall - that was the point I was making yesterday and it's good to be able to make it today. 

Although Miliband made it sound otherwise, the admission was a significant one. Labour's "five point-plan for jobs and growth" has always rested on the assumption that the party would borrow more in the short-term. Were it do otherwise, and fund measures such as a VAT cut through spending cuts or tax rises elsewhere, the effectiveness of any stimulus would be dramatically reduced. Yet until now, Miliband has refused to concede as much. 

Now he has finally done so, the task for Labour is to persuade the public that borrowing for growth, at a time of stagnation and rising unemployment, is the right (and responsible) thing to do. Today's ComRes poll for the Independent, showing that 58 per cent of the public believe that the government's economic plan has failed and that it will be "time for a change" in 2015 is a reminder of the appetite for an alternative. 

The difficulty for Labour is that the Tories' argument that "you can't borrow more to borrow less" has a seductive appeal. But as anyone who has ever taken out a mortgage or founded a company knows, it's not true. As families struggle to find affordable housing and adequate employment, Labour should make the argument that now is precisely the time for the government to take advantage of record low interest rates and borrow to invest. To the charge that it is burdening future generations with debt, the party should reply: what kind of country will our children inherit if we don't build more homes, create more jobs and protect the services we rely on? When the private sector is unwilling or unable to fulfil these duties, it falls to the state to intervene and act as a spender of last resort. As Nye Bevan once declared, government must never become a mere "public mourner for private economic crimes". 

The failure of Labour to make these arguments since 2010 means it has a significant political deficit to overcome. But if Miliband is to offer a genuine alternative to austerity, he must now resolve to do so. 

Ed Miliband delivers a speech on the high street in the town centre on April 25, 2013 in Worcester. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.