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.

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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.