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Why is the alternative to austerity kept such a secret?

An ambitious growth plan could be implemented with no public borrowing at all. 

An ambitious growth plan could be implemented with no public borrowing at all.
George Osborne prior to an EU Economic and Financial Affairs meeting on 6 May, 2014 at EU headquarters in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.

The Tory attack lines for the next general election are already crystal clear. They run as follows. "Labour left a dreadful economic mess which we had to clear up the way we did.   It’s been painful, but we were all in it together.  We always had a long-term economic plan, and now it’s come good. We have a strong economic recovery, the fastest of any industrial nation. So do you want to give the keys back to the people who caused all the trouble in the first place?" Every one of these claims is untrue, but they have gained momentum because none of them has been contested.

Labour didn’t leave behind an economic mess; the bankers did. In the Labour pre-crash years, the biggest deficit was 3.3 per cent of GDP, whereas the Thatcher and Major governments ratcheted up deficits bigger than that in 10 of their 18 years; and whilst Thatcher-Major produced surpluses in two years, Blair-Brown achieved surpluses in four. We were not all in it together when the burden of the cuts was split 80 per cent on reduced benefits and only 20 per cent on higher taxes, and even the higher taxes were mainly the VAT increase which impacts highly regressively on the poor. Nor is it a fair carve-up of the post-crash cake that average real wages have fallen 7 per cent while the richest 1,000 in the UK population, according to the Sunday Times Rich List, have doubled their wealth over this short period to more than half a trillion pounds.

Osborne’s long-term economic plan was to shrink the public sector so that the private sector could expand to fill the space, but that didn’t happen. Such growth as there has been has come from (dangerously) inflating the housing market though Help to Buy and from easing some of the capital cuts he had unwisely made earlier. And as for the present "recovery", it is far too dependent on rising consumer debt and is not sustainable when wages, productivity, business investment and net exports all remain negative.

But the biggest fib in the Tory attack plan is that they had to clear the huge deficit by prolonged austerity. Alistair Darling’s two stimulatory budgets in 2009-10 brought down the deficit sharply from £157bn in 2009 to £118bn in 2011. Thereafter, Osborne’s austerity budgets have reduced this to a trickle to reach £108bn in 2014. Not much doubt, then, about the quickest and most effective way to cut the deficit.

So how would a growth plan work? Initially it would use public investment, till there is a strong enough recovery to encourage private investment to flow back in, directed in consultation with industrial leaders at energy, transport and IT infrastructure, house-building, and laying the foundations for a low-carbon economy. The obvious objection is: how will it be paid for? The conventional answer is that, with interest rates at 0.5%, a hefty investment package of £30bn could be purchased from the markets at the bargain basement cost of £150m a year.

But if that is still too much for some conservative minds, the same investment could be secured in three other ways with no increase in public borrowing at all. A further £25-30bn tranche of quantitative easing, tiny compared to the £375bn already issued, could be directed not at the banks as before but at agreed industrial projects. The publicly owned banks RBS and Lloyds could be instructed to prioritise their lending on industry, rather than speculation abroad or property. And the very rich 1 per cent who have monopolised 90 per cent of the gains since the crash could be subject to a special super-tax to help contribute to tackling the nation’s debt, which some of them helped to create and from which they have most benefited.

That of course is only the start of generating growth that is really sustainable and redressing Britain’s deep structural problems. The UK manufacturing base has been hollowed out leading to a current deficit on the manufacturing account of over £100bn a year. The economy has only been kept going in its steady decline by ever-higher consumer borrowing. Income growth per head has almost halved in the 30 neoliberal years since 1980 compared with the 30 years before. And the banks not only exploited the deregulated system, but blew it up.

A major expansion of high-tech manufacturing, with jobs and skills that go with it, has therefore to be a central goal of the next government. That will require smaller, more specialist banks as well as much greater public control of the money supply when at present only 8 per cent of the nation’s capital goes into productive investment. A new relationship between state and markets is needed which is neither centralised planning nor deregulated markets, but which tries to learn the lessons of highly successful post-war Asian economies among others. And the excesses of inequality need to be addressed by giving other stakeholders and employees, as well as shareholders, a voice in determining pay.

Michael Meacher is Labour MP for Oldham West and Royton, and was environment minister from 1997-2003.