Can Labour defuse the "borrowing bombshell"?

An increasing number of Labour MPs believe that the party must make an explicit case for borrowing to invest if it is to counter the Tories' attack line of choice.

In 1992, it was the “tax bombshell” that sank Neil Kinnock and John Smith’s election hopes. The Conservatives believe that the “borrowing bombshell” will do the same to Ed Miliband and Ed Balls in 2015. The shadow chancellor’s refusal to rule out running a deficit to fund higher capital investment has given the Tories the target they wanted. A Times front page warning “Labour’s spending spree to cost £25bn” and Danny Alexander’s subsequent claim that the party would “pile another £166bn of borrowing on to the debt mountain” were the opening shots in the long war that will now be waged on Labour’s economic credibility.

Faced with this assault, the opposition’s instinct remains to change the subject: to its pledge to achieve a current budget surplus, to the living standards crisis, to George Osborne’s failure to meet his deficit targets. Balls and his aides state both publicly and privately that no decision will be taken on whether to borrow to invest until closer to the election, when the state of the economy is clearer. But few in the party believe it will be possible for Labour to achieve its priorities – a mass housebuilding programme, universal childcare, the integration of health and social care – without doing so. As one shadow cabinet minister told me: “We all know that a Labour government would invest more.” The question, rather, is a tactical one: when and how does Labour make the case for “good borrowing”?

The party starts, as all sides acknowledge, from a position of weakness. The Conservatives’ framing of the crash as the result of overspending by the last government has succeeded in crowding out all alternative accounts. It is the belief that Labour was profligate in the past that allows the Tories to warn that it would be profligate in the future. Yet the facts are on the opposition’s side. In 2007, both the deficit (2.4 per cent of GDP) and the national debt (36.5 per cent) were lower than in 1997 (3.4 per cent of GDP, national debt of 42.5 per cent). It was the crash that caused the deficit (which swelled to 11 per cent after a collapse in tax receipts), not the deficit that caused the crash. But politics is not an Oxford economics seminar. The perception among the public that the last government spent too much is so ingrained that the numbers no longer matter. There is little to be gained from repeatedly contesting this myth, just as there is little to be gained from an insincere apology. The outcome of the election will depend on Labour winning an argument about the future, not the past.

An essential part of this will be a commitment to invest in those areas, such as housing and childcare, that support long-term prosperity. But given the fiscal constraints that Labour would face in office, with £12bn of tax rises required merely to maintain departmental spending cuts at their present pace, it will almost certainly have to borrow to make up the shortfall.

In private, Miliband’s advisers argue that the voters are able to distinguish between borrowing to fund day-to-day spending and borrowing for investment, just as they distinguish between “borrowing to fund the weekly shop” and “borrowing for an asset like a house”. But the Labour leader is not yet prepared to make this case in public. Since an ill-fated interview last year on Radio 4’s The World at One, in which he refused eight times to admit that Labour would borrow more than the Conservatives, Miliband has focused deliberately on market reforms that would not cost government money: freezing energy prices, expanding use of the living wage and restructuring the banking system. When he has made promises that would require new funding, such as the construction of 200,000 homes a year by 2020, the question of borrowing has been deferred.

It is an ambiguity that increasing numbers of Labour MPs believe can no longer be maintained. If the party waits until early 2015 before showing its hand, they warn, it will be too late to win the voters round. The former cabinet minister John Healey told me: “The terms of debate about borrowing are still dominated by the simple sloganeering from the coalition … I think we have to break that argument; there is clearly good borrowing and bad borrowing.” Another former cabinet minister, Peter Hain, similarly argued: “We ceded the territory in the months after May 2010 by being preoccupied with an overlong leadership election. We’ve got to win it back, basically.”

Healey urges Labour to turn the Tories’ household analogies against them: “It makes sense to borrow to buy a house, especially if your mortgage payments are less than your rent. It makes sense to borrow money to buy a car if that allows you to then travel to take up a job that pays better and brings in more.”

The case for borrowing to invest could be made more easily if Labour were to have what one MP calls a “fiscal Clause Four moment”: an act that convinces voters it means what it says about “iron discipline”. It is this ambition that explains Balls’s continued threat to withdraw support for High Speed 2 and the doubt over Labour’s commitment to Trident. But while the party continues its search for an emblem of fiscal responsibility, the Tories are remorselessly increasing their lead on this issue.

Rather than proselytising for borrowing, as Labour’s most ardent Keynesians propose, or entering an auction on austerity, as its most ardent fiscal conservatives suggest, Miliband’s ambition remains to shift the debate towards building “a different kind of economy”, one beyond the conventional terms of exchange on tax and spend. In an era of depressed living standards, it is a gamble that may serve his party well. But if the next election proves more like its predecessors than many expect, he risks being left defenceless beneath the bombshell.

Ed Miliband and Ed Balls at the Labour conference in Manchester in 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron the captive

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As a Conservative MP, I want Parliament to get a proper debate on Brexit

The government should consider a Green Paper before Article 50. 

I am very pleased that the government has listened to the weight of opinion across the House of Commons – and the country – by agreeing to put its plan for Brexit before Parliament and the country for scrutiny before Article 50 is triggered. Such responsiveness will stand the government in good stead. A confrontation with Parliament, especially given the paeans to parliamentary sovereignty we heard from Leave campaigners during the referendum, would have done neither the Brexit process nor British democracy any good.

I support the government’s amendment to Labour’s motion, which commits the House to respecting the will of the British people expressed in the referendum campaign. I accept that result, and now I and other Conservatives who campaigned to Remain are focused on getting the best deal for Britain; a deal which respects the result of the referendum, while keeping Britain close to Europe and within the single market.

The government needs to bring a substantive plan before Parliament, which allows for a proper public and parliamentary debate. For this to happen, the plan provided must be detailed enough for MPs to have a view on its contents, and it must arrive in the House far enough in advance of Article 50 for us to have a proper debate. As five pro-European groups said yesterday, a Green Paper two months before Article 50 is invoked would be a sensible way of doing it. Or, in the words of David Davis just a few days before he was appointed to the Cabinet, a “pre-negotiation white paper” could be used to similar effect.

Clearly there are divisions, both between parties and between Leavers and Remainers, on what the Brexit deal should look like. But I, like other members of the Open Britain campaign and other pro-European Conservatives, have a number of priorities which I believe the government must prioritise in its negotiations.

On the economy, it is vital that the government strives to keep our country fully participating in the single market. Millions of jobs depend on the unfettered trade, free of both tariff and non-tariff barriers, we enjoy with the world’s biggest market. This is absolutely compatible with the result, as senior Leave campaigners such as Daniel Hannan assured voters before the referendum that Brexit would not threaten Britain’s place in the single market. The government must also undertake serious analysis on the consequences of leaving the customs union, and the worrying possibility that the UK could fall out of our participation in the EU’s Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with non-EU countries like South Korea.

If agreeing a new trading relationship with Europe in just two years appears unachievable, the government must look closely into the possibility of agreeing a transitional arrangement first. Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s chief negotiator, has said this would be possible and the Prime Minister was positive about this idea at the recent CBI Conference. A suitable transitional arrangement would prevent the biggest threat to British business – that of a "cliff edge" that would slap costly tariffs and customs checks on British exports the day after we leave.

Our future close relationship with the EU of course goes beyond economics. We need unprecedentedly close co-operation between the UK and the EU on security and intelligence sharing; openness to talented people from Europe and the world; and continued cooperation on issues like the environment. This must all go hand-in-hand with delivering reforms to immigration that will make the system fairer, many of which can be seen in European countries as diverse as the Netherlands and Switzerland.

This is what I and others will be arguing for in the House of Commons, from now until the day Britain leaves the European Union. A Brexit deal that delivers the result of the referendum while keeping our country prosperous, secure, open and tolerant. I congratulate the government on their decision to involve the House in their plan for Brexit - and look forward to seeing the details. 

Neil Carmichael is the Conservative MP for Stroud and supporter of the Open Britain campaign.