Labour MPs urge Miliband to make the case for borrowing to invest

Former cabinet ministers Peter Hain and John Healey argue that the party must make an explicit case for investment if it is to counter the Tories' attack lines before the election.

Ed Balls's recent confirmation that Labour will leave room to borrow to invest has led to a renewed assault from the right on the party's economic stance. A Times frontpage declaring "Labour’s spending spree to cost £25bn" and Danny Alexander’s subsequent claim that the party would add "another £166bn of borrowing" were a preview of the onslaught that the Conservatives and their proxies will mount in the run-up to the election. In 1992, it was the "tax bombshell" that sank Neil Kinnock and John Smith’s election hopes. The Tories believe that the "borrowing bombshell" will do the same to Miliband and Balls in 2015.

Faced with these attacks, as I write in this week's politics column, Labour'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 for capital spending 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"?

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.

But an increasing numbers of Labour MPs believe this ambiguity can no longer be maintained. As one told me, "if we wait until January 2015 before making the case, it will be too late to win the voters round." As all sides acknowledge, the party begins 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. Having lost an argument about the past, the question now is whether Labour can win an argument about the future and the need for investment in those areas, such as housing and childcare, that support long-term prosperity. 

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.

You don’t want to be borrowing as a government, or a household, or as a business in order to support day-to-day revenue spending. But there’s a strong principled argument for the value of borrowing to invest when you build up a long-term asset that will be paid for over the long-term, not least because those that pay for a road, a power station, a hospital, a new set of housing will also be those that benefit from it as they service the borrowing. That’s the basic principled case for intergenerational fairness and the rightness of borrowing for that purpose.

Governments, uniquely, have the position and the power to borrow at rates not available to anyone else. They can borrow at low rates for the long-term. And third, uniquely, it’s what governments do in order to pull their countries through bad times.

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. And the only way of winning it back is to be on the front foot.

He added: "Our big picture should be the capital investment in housing, with all the hundreds of thousands of jobs and apprenticeships that will create as well as meeting an essential demand. We've got to get that out. I think that argument can be won.

"The Tory-Lib Dems have successfully imprinted a big deceit on the public mind with the help of a largely compliant media, that the public expenditure crisis was all Labour's overspending, rather than the global banking crisis and managing the consequences of that. So we have ground to make up and it can be made up provided we're on the front foot." 

Healey urged Labour to turn the Tories’ household analogies against them:

Governments aren’t the same as families or households but you can make some of the same arguments in Thatcher-like terms. 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 then to travel to take up a job that pays better and brings in more. Some of the same dynamics are there in good government investment for the long-term.

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 traditional 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 looks on in his office at Portcullis House at the beginning of a meeting with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier earlier this week. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.