How Labour can credibly pledge to outspend the Tories

While restricting current spending, the party should promise to invest the proceeds of growth into future-facing areas like skills, childcare and infrastructure.

Labour must make a fundamental choice; whether to broadly accept George Osborne’s fiscal plans or commit to spending more. Until that decision is made, the question of whether Labour is tacking to the left or hugging tight to the coalition will remain unanswered: 'follow the money', to use the old Watergate maxim.

A Fabian Society commission has spent the last year examining this choice by considering the impact of rolling forward the chancellor’s current plans, as well as asking how much more it might be possible for a future government to spend and what that money might do.

The inquiry concluded that the coalition’s existing plans for 2016 and 2017 would translate into an almost unthinkable decline in public provision. Councils would be able to deliver little more than their statutory social care and refuse collection duties. Some government departments would end up with less than half the budgets they started with in 2010. And a further round of deep social security cuts would be needed, with George Osborne’s proposal to remove benefits from young people only the start.

A future government should do everything it can to avoid making these choices, but it must also remain totally committed to deficit reduction, for both economic and political reasons. That leaves a tight-rope to walk, between fiscal denial and spending cuts which will cause huge harm. Exactly how much more money a future government will be able to spend will depend on how well the economy is doing, because rising GDP feeds through into extra tax revenue. But the Fabian commission concluded that any party wishing to offer a convincing alternative to the coalition should aim to spend £20bn more in 2017 than the government now intends.

This would be enough extra money to avoid the worst of the pain scheduled for after the next election. But an incoming government would still need to make some hard decisions, which could prove very uncomfortable for Labour activists. For example, it would probably be possible to avoid big new cuts, but most departments would see spending frozen or increased by inflation only. The government would also need to find money from social security, so some entitlements would need to be cut unless economic recovery creates unexpected savings. There will almost certainly need to be a debate about 'least bad' benefit cuts, with fresh attention to some of the more marginal pensioner benefits.

Labour won’t win the argument, however, if the fiscal debate is just about spending 'more' or 'less'. The left also needs to set out the positive case for spending, by arguing that the composition of public expenditure must change. Under the coalition, the spending priorities have been healthcare and pensions. Both are very important, but without enough money to go round, the result has been deep cuts to the sort of future-facing spending which brings long term prosperity: skills, childcare, infrastructure, innovation and job creation.

The Fabian commission proposes that in 2016 and 2017, spending on these areas should receive the same special protection as the NHS budget does today. It also argues for a permanent increase to capital spending. With these reforms a future government could show that higher expenditure is the only way to spend on the future without sacrificing the vulnerable, old and sick of today.

Labour will no doubt worry about the political attacks it will face if it is to promise more spending. And it is true that some of the extra money would probably need to come from tax rises, although these can be limited to high income groups. For example the Fabian commission heard that many billions could be saved through reform of pension tax relief, so that rich workers only receive the same public subsidy for each pound they save as everyone else.

But the improving economic outlook also offers some cover for the proponents of higher spending, since projections for tax revenue will soon be revised upwards. The coalition seems likely to commit the money to accelerating deficit reduction or pre-election tax cuts. Labour can promise an alternative; to recycle the 'proceeds of growth' into productive, pro-growth public expenditure. A promise to spend more after 2015 need not be seen just as a shift to the left. It is also a commitment to Britain’s long-term future.

2030 Vision: The final report of the Fabian Society Commission on Future Spending Choices is published today. Read it on the Fabian Society's website here 

Ed Miliband and Ed Balls at the Labour conference in Brighton last month. Photograph: Getty Images.

Andrew Harrop is general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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Richmond is a victory for hope - now let's bring change across the country

The regressives are building their armies. 

Last night a regressive alliance was toppled. Despite being backed by both Ukip and the Conservative Party, Zac Goldsmith was rejected by the voters of Richmond Park.

Make no mistake, this result will rock the Conservative party – and in particularly dent their plans for a hard and painful Brexit. They may shrug off this vote in public, but their majority is thin and their management of the post-referendum process is becoming more chaotic by the day. This is a real moment, and those of us opposing their post-truth plans must seize it.

I’m really proud of the role that the Green party played in this election. Our local parties decided to show leadership by not standing this time and urging supporters to vote instead for the candidate that stood the best chance of winning for those of us that oppose Brexit. Greens’ votes could very well be "what made the difference" in this election (we received just over 3,500 votes in 2015 and Sarah Olney’s majority is 1,872) - though we’ll never know exactly where they went. Just as importantly though, I believe that the brave decision by the local Green party fundamentally changed the tone of the election.

When I went to Richmond last weekend, I met scores of people motivated to campaign for a "progressive alliance" because they recognised that something bigger than just one by election is at stake. We made a decision to demonstrate you can do politics differently, and I think we can fairly say that was vindicated. 

There are some already attacking me for helping get one more Liberal Democrat into Parliament. Let me be very clear: the Lib Dems' role in the Coalition was appalling – propping up a Conservative government hell bent on attacking our public services and overseeing a hike in child poverty. But Labour’s record of their last time in office isn't immune from criticism either – not just because of the illegal war in Iraq but also their introduction of tuition fees, privatisation of our health service and slavish worship of the City of London. They, like the Liberal Democrats, stood at the last election on an austerity manifesto. There is a reason that we remain different parties, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn't also seize opportunities like this to unite behind what we have in common. Olney is no perfect candidate but she has pledged to fight a hard Brexit, campaign against airport expansion and push for a fair voting system – surely progressives can agree that her win takes us forward rather than backwards?

Ultimately, last night was not just defeat of a regressive alliance but a victory for hope - a victory that's sorely needed on the back of of the division, loss and insecurity that seems to have marked much of the rest of this year. The truth is that getting to this point hasn’t been an easy process – and some people, including local Green party members have had criticisms which, as a democrat, I certainly take seriously. The old politics dies hard, and a new politics is not easy to forge in the short time we have. But standing still is not an option, nor is repeating the same mistakes of the past. The regressives are building their armies and we either make our alternative work or risk the left being out of power for a generation. 

With our NHS under sustained attack, our climate change laws threatened and the increasing risk of us becoming a tax haven floating on the edge of the Atlantic, the urgent need to think differently about how we win has never been greater. 

An anti-establishment wave is washing over Britain. History teaches us that can go one of two ways. For the many people who are utterly sick of politics as usual, perhaps the idea of politicians occasionally putting aside their differences for the good of the country is likely to appeal, and might help us rebuild trust among those who feel abandoned. So it's vital that we use this moment not just to talk among ourselves about how to work together but also as another spark to start doing things differently, in every community in Britain. That means listening to people, especially those who voted for Britain to leave the EU, hearing what they’re saying and working with them to affect change. Giving people real power, not just the illusion of it.

It means looking at ways to redistribute power and money in this country like never before, and knowing that a by-election in a leafy London suburb changes nothing for the vast majority of our country.

Today let us celebrate that the government's majority is smaller, and that people have voted for a candidate who used her victory speech to say that she would "stand up for an open, tolerant, united Britain".  But tomorrow let’s get started on something far bigger - because the new politics is not just about moments it's about movements, and it will only work if nobody is left behind.

 

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.