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.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.