The coalition's 'infrastructure boost' is a damp squib, but challenges for Labour remain

By funding higher capital spending through cuts elsewhere, Osborne will do little to boost growth. But will Labour finally make the case for borrowing for growth?

The news that the coalition is set to announce £15bn of infrastructure investment in next month's Spending Review is being portrayed by some as a significant shift that blunts Labour's economic critique. The FT's report claims that the move "could overshadow Labour’s attempts to convince the public it is the only party arguing for a big boost to capital spending. But for several reasons, it's less impressive than it sounds.

First, this isn't new money. In the Budget earlier this year, Osborne announced that the government (assuming he's still Chancellor) would spend £3bn a year on infrastructure from 2015-16, amounting to £15bn over the rest of the decade. Second, the fact that the investment will be spread over five years, rather than one, and will be entirely funded through greater cuts to current spending will significantly reduce any increase in growth. 

Though Osborne will claim otherwise, alternatives were on offer. Vince Cable called for him to take advantage of Britain's historically low bond yields and borrow £14bn (1 per cent of GDP) to invest in housebuilding. As he wrote in his New Statesman essay in March:

One obvious question is why capital investment cannot now be greatly expanded. Pessimists say that the central government is incapable of mobilising capital investment quickly. But that is absurd: only five years ago the government was managing to build infrastructure, schools and hospitals at a level £20bn higher than last year. Businesses are forward-thinking and react to a future pipe - line of activity, regardless of how “shovel ready” it may be: we have seen that in energy investment, where the major firms need certainty over decades.

The Economist recommended an additional £28bn of infrastructure investment, with at least half funded through higher borrowing. Bloomberg argued for a minimum stimulus of $21bn, again largely deficit-financed. But Osborne persisting in the delusion that "you can't borrow more to borrow less" (in fact, as any Keynesian knows, you can) has once again chosen austerity over growth. 

Labour remains the only one of the three main parties calling for a genuine stimulus. But if it wants to maintain that position, it will need to make a sustained case for borrowing for growth (as Ed Miliband entirely failed to do in his infamous World At One interview). One key test of the speech Ed Balls will give on the economy on Monday will be whether he finally does so. Too often since 2010, Labour has appeared to be running scared of its own policy. 

George Osborne and Danny Alexander outside the Treasury. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.