Osborne won the battle on austerity, now Labour must look to the future

Rather than re-running the arguments of 2010, the party must start and sustain a debate about what a good, healthy economy looks like.

Earlier this week, George 'Slasher' Osborne gave a speech from a not-so-carefully chosen building site at One Commercial Street, London, E1, in the centre of the City, where he claimed that the economy was 'turning the corner'. Presumably he couldn’t find a suitable site to give the speech from in Newcastle, Birmingham or Liverpool; maybe he was afraid to venture north?  His choice of venue speaks volumes giving the growing disparities between north and south.  

Over the last few months, there have been several positive indicators, including the recent Purchasing Manager Indices (PMIs) as well as data on consumer confidence, retail sales, production and exports.  The recent poor export data suggests that there is still a long way to go before any recovery hits 'escape velocity'. There remain risks to the downside, including from the eurozone, but also from the consumer, who is currently dis-saving, and investment seems unlikely to take off. The rise in bond yields to over 3% also represents a major risk to recovery and may, in the end, force the MPC to engage in further quantitative easing.  It amounts to what the committee called an "unwarranted" monetary tightening.  If, as Osborne claimed, falling bond yields reflected the success of his policies then rising yields should reflect badly; he can’t have it both ways. Moreover, the deficit reduction plan has stalled for the last two years and there is little prospect of it improving.

We need to put all of this in context. Osborne has been responsible for the slowest recovery for more than a century. GDP per capita is now around 7% below its starting level. Four of the last 11 quarters have seen negative growth and we have had two quarters in a row of growth - 0.3% in Q1 2013 and 0.7% in Q2. The chart below illustrates that, 66 months in, the UK economy is still approximately 3% below its 2007 peak. This compares with the recessions of the 1920s and 1930s when at a similar point GDP was just under 7% higher. GDP after the shallow recession of the 1990s was 10% higher. In the period 2009 Q4 - 2010 Q3, output under the Labour government’s policies rose by 2.4%. I start from Q4 2010 on the basis that it took some time for the coalition's policies to take effect. The OBR even had to upgrade its estimate of how strong growth was. In the 11 quarters since then, 2010 Q4 - 2013 Q2, the economy has grown by a total of 1.8%, of which 0.7% occurred in 2012 Q3 because of Labour’s investment in the Olympics. 

The UK is still 2.9% below its 2008 starting level, whereas all of the other major countries, with the exception of the Netherlands and Italy, are above it. The UK has grown 1.8% since 2010 but this is markedly slower than the United States, Canada, Australia and Germany. So under Osborne, the UK has performed worse than France, which does not have its own currency and is unable to engage in quantitative easing. The UK has done worse than the EU, the euro area and the OECD.

Slasher went on to claim that the recent sharp pick-up in the PMIs and some better housing data meant he had been vindicated. He argued that what he called the "fiscalist" story - that spending cuts and tax rises have had a large impact on output - was wrong. Sadly for him, on the same day he claimed this the prestigious National Bureau of Economic Research published a major study of the impact of Osborne himself on the economy, and the news wasn’t good.

In this important new paper, Òscar Jordà of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and Alan Taylor of the University of California Davis, argued that the adverse impacts of austerity have been underestimated. They examined Osborne’s post-2010 austerity to determine the share of responsibility that should be borne by the decision to instigate austerity in a slump. The answer, they concluded, is "about three fifths...By 2013...the cumulative effects of these choices amounted to about 3.0% of GDP…Our model also suggests that additional drag from the 2010–12 policies will also continue to be felt into 2014–16, even not allowing for any further austerity." They also argue that, in all likelihood, this may well be an underestimate of the true effect. They concluded that "the vast majority of the difference between the actual UK recovery and what the OBR forecast can be attributed to the Coalition’s austerity policy choices in 2010–13."

The chief political problem for Labour remains the effectiveness of the Tory contamination of the idea of debt; that 'the money ran out' and that it was spent by Labour, and that the boom was a party fuelled by debt. It follows that austerity is a necessary antidote to excess. By extension, say the Tories, the solution to a problem caused by debt cannot possibly be more debt. The challenge for Ed Miliband and Ed Balls, then, is not just that people don't trust them on the economy, it is that they have lost control of what it means to be economically competent. They can talk all they like about living standards, under-employment and wage stagnation. But it sounds as if they are talking about social symptoms, not the essential judgments that underpin sound economic management.

Labour failed to pin the post-2010 stagnation on Osborne - that period is seen by too many people as a continuation of suffering made inevitable by the 2008 crash - and now the two Eds are facing an election campaign where something they see as self-evident - who is really responsible for the past three years of suffering - is too easily portrayed as self-serving partisanship and denial.

Ed Balls is now in a very difficult position. It is bad enough in politics to say 'I told you so' when, deep down, everyone knows you called it right. It is much worse to say it when there is a concerted campaign to say that, actually, you were wrong all along.

The task, then, is to start and sustain a debate about what a good, healthy economy looks like. What kind of jobs? What kind of society does the economy support? Who benefits? Only the south east? What about the workers? That allows Labour to capitalise on the plausible perception that the Tories have just about scraped together enough expansion to keep them and their friends in clover while, as usual, the rest of us fall behind.

Labour has to come up with a coherent plan that appeals to the median voter. Focusing on unfairness and the fact that the coalition has presided over declining living standards is a good idea. But being Osborne-lite won’t work. So many people are hurting and need some hope. Coming up with credible plans to raise real wages, create jobs and reduce youth unemployment looks like the way forward. 

George Osborne astonishingly claimed in his speech "our economic plan is the only sustainable way to raise living standards." This is Labour’s chance to show that simply isn’t the case. There is a lot of work to do.

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

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

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By refusing to stand down, Jeremy Corbyn has betrayed the British working classes

The most successful Labour politicians of the last decades brought to politics not only a burning desire to improve the lot of the working classes but also an understanding of how free market economies work.

Jeremy Corbyn has defended his refusal to resign the leadership of the Labour Party on the grounds that to do so would be betraying all his supporters in the country at large. But by staying on as leader of the party and hence dooming it to heavy defeat in the next general election he would be betraying the interests of the working classes this country. More years of Tory rule means more years of austerity, further cuts in public services, and perpetuation of the gross inequality of incomes. The former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Seema Malhotra, made the same point when she told Newsnight that “We have an unelectable leader, and if we lose elections then the price of our failure is paid by the working people of this country and their families who do not have a government to stand up for them.”

Of course, in different ways, many leading figures in the Labour movement, particularly in the trade unions, have betrayed the interests of the working classes for several decades. For example, in contrast with their union counterparts in the Scandinavian countries who pressurised governments to help move workers out of declining industries into expanding sectors of the economy, many British trade union leaders adopted the opposite policy. More generally, the trade unions have played a big part in the election of Labour party leaders, like Corbyn, who were unlikely to win a parliamentary election, thereby perpetuating the rule of Tory governments dedicated to promoting the interests of the richer sections of society.

And worse still, even in opposition Corbyn failed to protect the interests of the working classes. He did this by his abysmal failure to understand the significance of Tory economic policies. For example, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer had finished presenting the last budget, in which taxes were reduced for the rich at the expense of public services that benefit everybody, especially the poor, the best John McConnell could do – presumably in agreement with Corbyn – was to stand up and mock the Chancellor for having failed to fulfill his party’s old promise to balance the budget by this year! Obviously neither he nor Corbyn understood that had the government done so the effects on working class standards of living would have been even worse. Neither of them seems to have learnt that the object of fiscal policy is to balance the economy, not the budget.

Instead, they have gone along with Tory myth about the importance of not leaving future generations with the burden of debt. They have never asked “To whom would future generations owe this debt?” To their dead ancestors? To Martians? When Cameron and his accomplices banged on about how important it was to cut public expenditures because the average household in Britain owed about £3,000, they never pointed out that this meant that the average household in Britain was a creditor to the tune of about the same amount (after allowing for net overseas lending). Instead they went along with all this balanced budget nonsense. They did not understand that balancing the budget was just the excuse needed to justify the prime objective of the Tory Party, namely to reduce public expenditures in order to be able to reduce taxes on the rich. For Corbyn and his allies to go along with an overriding objective of balancing the budget is breathtaking economic illiteracy. And the working classes have paid the price.

One left-wing member of the panel on Question Time last week complained that the interests of the working classes were ignored by “the elite”. But it is members of the elite who have been most successful in promoting the interests of the working classes. The most successful pro-working class governments since the war have all been led mainly by politicians who would be castigated for being part of the elite, such as Clement Atlee, Harold Wilson, Tony Crosland, Barbara Castle, Richard Crossman, Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey, Tony Blair, and many others too numerous to list. They brought to politics not only a burning desire to improve the lot of the working classes (from which some of them, like me, had emerged) and reduce inequality in society but also an understanding of how free market economies work and how to deal with its deficiencies. This happens to be more effective than ignorant rhetoric that can only stroke the egos and satisfy the vanity of demagogues

People of stature like those I have singled out above seem to be much more rare in politics these days. But there is surely no need to go to other extreme and persist with leaders like Jeremy Corbyn, a certain election loser, however pure his motives and principled his ambitions.

Wilfred Beckerman is an Emeritus Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, and was, for several years in the 1970s, the economics correspondent for the New Statesman