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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder