George Osborne holds his red box aloft. Photo:Getty Images
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Labour must make the case for greater spending: in its past and the future

George Osborne is selling off our children's future. Labour must set a different course, argues John Healey MP. 

Government has a duty to do what no individual can and no business will: look out for the long term interests of a country and its citizens.

George Osborne’s political trick of the last five years against a too-timid Labour opposition has been to define our national, long-term economic interest as a problem of the fiscal deficit.

Never mind that if the UK economy had continued to grow at the same rate as the first six months of 2010, before Labour’s recovery was choked off, it would be £100bn bigger today. A Yorkshire-sized lump of lost national income, and thousands of good jobs that we could now have had gone with it.  

Never mind that GDP per person is still lower than before the 2008 global banking crisis and crash, with most people still thinking their household finances are getting worse not better.

Never mind that only France, Italy and Japan of the G20 countries have grown slower than the UK since 2010. Or that Osborne has led the slowest UK recovery from recession for 100 years – the main reason he failed to deal with the deficit as he promised in the last Parliament.

In Osborne’s Ministry of Truth where black is white and war is peace, vital job-creating, growth-generating investment in our country’s future is the threat.

How else to explain the Chancellor’s plan to legislate that government runs a surplus? His latest political trick to double down on an economic narrative that locks Labour out. It may be good politics but it is bad economics and bad fiscal management.

If we let him do it, then Labour won’t win in 2020, and we won’t deserve to. We know that in the last Parliament, growth weakened as the Tories cut public investment in infrastructure in half, reduced government investment on R&D, slashed vital capital investment on affordable homes, and cut further education.

Economists may argue about the scale of the knock-on economic effect of cutting this sort of spending – the so-called fiscal multiplier – but almost all agree it is significant, and bigger in a downturn or during a recovery. A mid-range IMF estimate suggests that for every £1m governments cut, their economy shrinks between £0.9m and £1.7m.

But investment spending brings more benefit than just short-term economic stimulus.

It’s vital in the long-term as a sure-fire way to lock in both higher growth and higher productivity, which is imperative for good jobs in the future. Without investment in transport, research, skills, energy and communications we won’t create and keep the well-paying jobs we need in Britain.  

And it’s vital to any alternative vision of making Britain a better place. Government decisions today determine the opportunities that our children will have tomorrow.

It’s their futures that George Osborne is failing when he chokes off public investment. And their potential he is stunting when he limits our country’s economic potential.

Just as his surplus rule would not work for a family looking for a mortgage to buy their own home, a teenager wanting to go to university or a business aiming to expand, it’s counterproductive too for a country that needs to invest in its future.

The public agree. By nine percentage points, they think the best way to grow our economy is to boost productivity and invest rather than focusing on cutting the deficit and lowering taxes.

No party of the centre-left deserves to get into power if it can’t convince people that government can be a force for good, not just in distributing national income but in creating it too. These arguments are there for the making. And ahead of the Budget next week, Labour must make them.

John Healey is the Labour MP for Wentworth and Dearne and was formerly housing minister, local government minister and financial secretary to the Treasury

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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

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