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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Is Scottish Labour on the way back, or heading for civil war?

There are signs of life, but also recriminations.

The extraordinary rise of the Scottish Tories and the collapse in SNP seat numbers grabbed most of the headlines in the recent general election. Less remarked on was the sudden, unexpected exhalation of air that came from what was thought to be the corpse of Scottish Labour.

In 2015, Labour lost 40 of its 41 Scottish seats as the SNP rocketed from six to 56, was wiped out in its Glaswegian heartlands, and looked to have ceded its place as the choice of centre-left voters – perhaps permanently – to the Nationalists. But while the electorate’s convulsion in June against the SNP’s insistence on a second independence referendum most benefited Ruth Davidson, it also served to reanimate Labour.

The six seats grabbed back (making a total of seven) included three in the West of Scotland, proving that the Nat stranglehold on Labour’s territory was not quite as secure as it had seemed. There is, it appears, life in the old dog yet.

Not only that, but the surprise success of Jeremy Corbyn across the UK has stiffened Labour’s spine when it comes to insisting that it, and not the SNP, is the rightful home of Scotland’s socialists.

Corbyn was largely kept south of the border during the election campaign – Kezia Dugdale, the leader at Holyrood, had supported Owen Smith’s leadership challenge. But in August, Corbyn will embark on a five-day tour of marginal SNP constituencies that Labour could potentially take back at the next election. The party has set a target of reclaiming 18 Scottish seats as part of the 64 it needs across Britain to win a majority at Westminster. The trip will focus on traditional areas such as Glasgow and Lanarkshire, where tiny swings would return seats to the People’s Party. Dugdale is no doubt hoping for some reflected glory.

Corbyn will present himself as the authentically left-wing choice, a leader who will increase public spending and invest in public services compared to the austerity of the Tories and the timidity of the SNP. “Labour remains on an election footing as a government-in-waiting, ready to end failed austerity and ensure that Scotland has the resources it needs to provide the public services its people deserve,” he said. “Unlike the SNP and the Tories, Labour will transform our economy through investment, insisting that the true wealth creators - that means all of us – benefit from it.”

The SNP has benefited in recent years from the feeling among many north of the border that Labour and the Tories were committed to differing shades of a similar economic programme, that was starving public services of cash and that paid little attention to Scottish desires or needs. But as the Nats’ spell in government in Edinburgh has worn on, first under Alex Salmond and now Nicola Sturgeon, with little being done to tackle the nation’s social problems, patience has started to run out.

Dugdale said yesterday that she “looked forward to joining Jeremy in August as we take our message to the people of Scotland”. That’s not a sentiment we would have heard from her before June. But it does raise the future spectacle of Davidson’s Tories battling for the centre and centre-right vote and Labour gunning for the left. The SNP, which has tried to be all things to all people, will have to make a choice – boasting that it is “Scotland’s Party” is unlikely to be enough.

The 20th anniversary of the referendum that delivered the Scottish Parliament is almost upon us. Then, Scottish Labour provided the UK and the Westminster government with figures of the stature of Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Donald Dewar and George Robertson. That was a long time ago, and the decline in quality of Labour’s representatives both in London and Edinburgh since has been marked. The SNP’s decade of success has attracted much of the brightest new talent through its doors. Young Scots still seem to be set on the idea of independence. Labour has a credibility problem that won’t be easily shaken off.

But still, the body has twitched – perhaps it’s even sitting up. Is Scottish Labour on the way back? If so, is that down to the SNP’s declining popularity or to Corbyn’s appeal? And could Dugdale be a convincing frontwoman for a genuinely left-wing agenda?

There may be trouble ahead. Yesterday, the Scottish Labour Campaign for Socialism – whose convener, Neil Findlay MSP, ran Corbyn’s leadership campaign in Scotland – accused Dugdale of “holding Corbyn back” in June. A spokesperson for the group said: “While it’s great we won some seats back, it’s clear that the campaign here failed to deliver. While elsewhere we've seen people being enthused by ‘for the many, not the few’ we concentrated on the dispiriting visionless ‘send Nicola a message’ – and paid a price for that, coming third in votes and seats for the first time in a century. In Scotland we looked more like [former Scottish leader] Jim Murphy’s Labour Party than Jeremy Corbyn’s – and that isn’t a good look.”

While the group insists this isn’t intended as a challenge to Dugdale, that might change if Corbyn receives a rapturous reception in August. We’ll learn then whether Scotland is falling for the high-tax, high-spending pitch that seems to be working so well elsewhere, and whether Scottish Labour has jerked back to life only to find itself staring down the barrel of a civil war.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).