Labour needs to go much further on fiscal responsibility

The party should publish a series of potential fiscal rules for discussion and replace the VAT cut with a stimulus based on growth-raising capital investment.

Labour has made a start on re-establishing its fiscal credibility but it now must go further than any opposition has done previously – and soon. Recent announcements on fiscal responsibility and welfare reform were pivotal. Having accepted that it can’t simply oppose, Labour is now free to advocate a political approach that is genuinely different to that of the Tories – placing the pursuit of social justice, greater employment, pay and growth at the heart of a fiscally responsible agenda.

When a paper called In the Black Labour was published by Policy Network at the end of December 2011, there was a storm in the Labour teacup. The party started to move towards a fiscally conservative stance but that was soon reversed under some political pressure. Many critics accused the paper of adopting George Osborne’s fiscal and economic stance. This was strange given that Osborne’s strategy of austerity before growth wasn’t fiscal conservatism, but fiscal-self harm which has led to a series of missed deficit targets.

Having resumed the path to a fiscally responsible policy 18 months later, Labour now needs to go further. To ensure fiscal responsibility, while preserving counter-cyclical flexibility, Labour should publish a series of potential fiscal rules for discussion in the expert community, identify preferred public expenditure pathways under different growth scenarios and have these tested independently. Any stimulus would need to be focused on growth-raising capital spend. Therefore, questions should be asked about a stimulus based on a VAT cut, even if temporary in nature. Labour should consider dropping this policy – and soon.

In government, these choices should be monitored by a strengthened Office for Budget Responsibility, or Fiscal Council, who would assess whether government is likely to deliver on its fiscal rules, and to make recommendations if the targets are missed. These proposals mean Labour opening its plans to greater scrutiny at an early stage than any opposition has done before, while still allowing room for manoeuvre should growth hasten or slow. Such scrutiny will make it clear how little money there is, so spare resources must be focused on generating growth through capital investment, helping the unemployed into work, encouraging business investment, and promoting science, education and skills.

Shifting from short-term expenditure to long-term investment and developing sound fiscal rules to ensure sustainable debt levels will be useful tools to help deliver a reduction in debt. However, these measures alone will not be enough to advance social justice in an era of limited budgets.

It also poses questions for welfare policy. Housing has attracted particular attention but the challenge of containing housing benefit budgets is far wider. Yes, more houses are needed but incomes for the most vulnerable, in-work support for those with disabilities and high impact job brokerage, like that seen in Newham, are also required. It is in providing all these supports and services that welfare spending should be focused. None of this will be revolutionary but it will make a measurable difference – the politics of austerity are harder. Spending elsewhere, for example on support for the better off and on above-inflation pension commitments, will have to be reduced.

This also raises the question of tax revenue. From a purely fiscally conservative perspective, the mixture of tax rises and spending cuts is broadly irrelevant (despite fervent academic debates about this issue), so long as deficits are reduced. From the point of view of social justice, however, trying to deliver 80 per cent of deficit reduction from cuts would involve an unacceptable breach of our national social fabric and would, in all likelihood, prove counter-productive. If people are therefore going to be asked to pay more tax it becomes even more important to be open about constraints and choices at an early stage – consent must be earned. The radical realisation among the more savvy on the centre-left is that spending is no longer the shortcut to social justice that it once seemed.

The state still has significant levers. For example, we live in an economy populated by almost 5 million businesses – a 40 per cent increase in only a decade and a six-fold increase since the 1970s. The vast majority of these businesses are sole traders or micro-enterprises. Many are challenging the way big businesses operate with innovative approaches; many bring benefits to their communities that many larger operations struggle to emulate,  not least keeping the wealth they generate local. Yet big business enjoys all sorts of advantages over smaller business, including access to legal action, patent restrictions, expensive regulatory constraints, access to prime space, favour by government procurement and planning law.

Challenging the bias in favour of big business would help release the spirit of entrepreneurial activity in communities across the UK that would not just drive growth and innovation but allow a fairer distribution of wealth.

Labour could place itself firmly on the side of these millions of worker-businesses committed to creating as level a playing field as possible through planning reform, tax changes, access to intellectual property, finance, international markets and marketing support.

If Labour aims to focus resources on supporting growth, putting the economy on a sustainable long term footing and fulfilling the left’s mission of being on the side of the many, not the few, then social justice, economic efficiency and, indeed, fiscal conservatism will go hand-in-hand. The choices are hard, the solutions tougher, but that is the nature of pursuing social justice in fiscally and economically constrained times. It’s better to start early. Labour has now done that but it’s only a start.

Hopi Sen and Anthony Painter have co-written Moving Labour into the Black published by Policy Network with Adam Lent

Ed Miliband and Ed Balls at the Labour conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

Hopi Sen is a former head of campaigns at the Parliamentary Labour Party and blogs at www.hopisen.com

Anthony Painter is a political writer, commentator and researcher. His new book Left Without A Future? is published in July

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle