Why Labour should be wary of attacking Osborne over borrowing

By repeatedly criticising the Chancellor for missing his deficit targets, the party risks reinforcing the impression that borrowing is always an economic ill.

George Osborne is fond of boasting that the deficit has fallen "each and every year" under the coalition, so it was unfortunate for the Chancellor when revisions made by the ONS last week meant that borrowing was officially higher in 2012-13 (£118.8bn) than in 2011-12 (£118.5bn).

At today's Treasury questions, Ed Balls and the rest of Labour's hit squad repeatedly attempted to force the Chancellor to concede as much, but Osborne gave no ground. He (correctly) pointed out that borrowing was only higher last year (2012-13) because the ONS had revised the 2011-12 figure down (by £2.4bn), "which was actually good news", and that, in GDP terms, the deficit fell from 7.8 per cent to 7.7 per cent. Along the way, the vampiric Osborne suggested that taking lessons from Balls on how to balance the books was like "getting a lesson from Dracula on how to look after a blood bank". 

Still, the facts are the facts: on the measure traditionally favoured by the Chancellor, borrowing rose last year. In a final attempt to force the truth out of him, Balls raised a point of order with the Speaker, warning that Osborne may have "inadvertently misled the House", but Bercow brushed it aside.

In so doing, he may have done the shadow chancellor a favour. Balls might be right when he points out that Osborne has borrowed billions more than expected but this line of attack is less convincing when Labour's Keynesian strategy is explicitly based on borrowing even more. The difference, of course, is that while Labour would borrow for growth (in the form of higher infrastructure spending), the coalition is borrowing to meet the cost of failure (in the form of lower growth and higher long-term unemployment). But while this might be a coherent economic position, politically, it's a tough sell. 

Rather than becoming trapped in a technical debate about the deficit, Labour would be wiser to focus on living standards and growth, but if it wants to continue to attack Osborne on this territory it will need a much better explanation of its own approach. Without clearly setting out how and why it would borrow for growth, the party merely reinforces the impression that borrowing is always and everywhere an economic ill. And that only strengthens Osborne's hand. 

George Osborne and Ed Balls attend the State Opening of Parliament, in the House of Lords at the Palace of Westminster on May 8, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Ukip's Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Is the general election 2017 the end of Ukip?

Ukip led the way to Brexit, but now the party is on less than 10 per cent in the polls. 

Ukip could be finished. Ukip has only ever had two MPs, but it held an outside influence on politics: without it, we’d probably never have had the EU referendum. But Brexit has turned Ukip into a single-issue party without an issue. Ukip’s sole remaining MP, Douglas Carswell, left the party in March 2017, and told Sky News’ Adam Boulton that there was “no point” to the party anymore. 

Not everyone in Ukip has given up, though: Nigel Farage told Peston on Sunday that Ukip “will survive”, and current leader Paul Nuttall will be contesting a seat this year. But Ukip is standing in fewer constituencies than last time thanks to a shortage of both money and people. Who benefits if Ukip is finished? It’s likely to be the Tories. 

Is Ukip finished? 

What are Ukip's poll ratings?

Ukip’s poll ratings peaked in June 2016 at 16 per cent. Since the leave campaign’s success, that has steadily declined so that Ukip is going into the 2017 general election on 4 per cent, according to the latest polls. If the polls can be trusted, that’s a serious collapse.

Can Ukip get anymore MPs?

In the 2015 general election Ukip contested nearly every seat and got 13 per cent of the vote, making it the third biggest party (although is only returned one MP). Now Ukip is reportedly struggling to find candidates and could stand in as few as 100 seats. Ukip leader Paul Nuttall will stand in Boston and Skegness, but both ex-leader Nigel Farage and donor Arron Banks have ruled themselves out of running this time.

How many members does Ukip have?

Ukip’s membership declined from 45,994 at the 2015 general election to 39,000 in 2016. That’s a worrying sign for any political party, which relies on grassroots memberships to put in the campaigning legwork.

What does Ukip's decline mean for Labour and the Conservatives? 

The rise of Ukip took votes from both the Conservatives and Labour, with a nationalist message that appealed to disaffected voters from both right and left. But the decline of Ukip only seems to be helping the Conservatives. Stephen Bush has written about how in Wales voting Ukip seems to have been a gateway drug for traditional Labour voters who are now backing the mainstream right; so the voters Ukip took from the Conservatives are reverting to the Conservatives, and the ones they took from Labour are transferring to the Conservatives too.

Ukip might be finished as an electoral force, but its influence on the rest of British politics will be felt for many years yet. 

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