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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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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