Miliband can't keep dodging the borrowing question

The Labour leader's World At One interview showed why he should make the explicit case for a short-term increase in borrowing.

Every time that Labour attacks George Osborne for planning to borrow £245bn more than planned, the Tory rejoinder comes, "but you would borrow even more!" Asked today on The World At One whether he would do so, Ed Miliband replied: "I don't accept that borrowing would be higher under a Labour government", arguing that higher growth would mean a lower deficit. But he later added that borrowing would be lower "in the medium term", leaving open the question of whether it would be lower in the short term. 

The answer, of course, is that the deficit would likely be higher in the short term as Labour borrows to fund its five-point stimulus for jobs and growth. But when pressed by Martha Kearney on how the party would meet the £12.5bn cost of a temporary cut in VAT (one of the five policies), Miliband dodged the question and replied: "the whole point about a VAT cut is that it would get growth moving and if you get growth moving you get more tax revenue in". On that point, he is almost certainly correct, which is why Labour can reasonably claim that borrowing would be lower in the medium term. But that doesn't resolve the issue of borrowing in the short-term. 

At some point before the election, and sooner rather than later, Labour will need to decide whether it is prepared to make the explicit Keynesian case for a deficit-financed stimulus. Without declaring that it would borrow for growth (and explaining why), the party merely reinforces the impression that borrowing is always and everywhere an economic ill.

In a radio interview, Miliband can just about get away with an answer as evasive as the one he supplied. But in an election debate with David Cameron, he will not be able to dodge the question of whether Labour would borrow more in the short-term. In which case, Miliband and Ed Balls should prepare a convincing answer now. 

Ed Miliband speaks at the CBI's annual conference on November 19, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.