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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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR