When the New Statesman asked me to write something on Osborne’s budget surplus law, they also suggested I talk about what Labour’s attitude should be. Space constraints meant that I could not say much on the second question, so let me amplify here.
Let's start in 2009. The Labour government's policy at the time was absolutely right. They provided fiscal support for the economy in the midst of the recession even though it meant increasing the deficit. Given the belief at the time that the recession might be short lived their policy was also quite clever, using a temporary cut in VAT as a close proxy for looser monetary policy.
What line should they have taken in 2010? I remember reading some reports that Gordon Brown initially wanted to continue placing the recovery above the need to reduce the deficit. If true, he was right. However it was perhaps inevitable that Labour began to also focus on deficit reduction: the recovery looked like it had begun, the debt problems in the Eurozone were constantly in the news, and the Conservatives and much of the media were saying we could become like Greece. So they instead fell back on the idea that recovery could be achieved at the same time as implementing policies designed to reduce the deficit. We can call this the ‘too far, too fast’ period, from the mantra Ed Balls used to criticise George Osborne’s policy.
This was when they made their first big mistake. Both Coalition parties had developed their own mantra, which I can call the ‘clearing up the mess Labour left’ line: Labour profligacy had maxed out the credit card, and so difficult measures would be needed. This is what Bill Keegan calls the big lie. Apparently Alastair Campbell advised Ed Miliband to get an independent figure to do a report on Labour’s fiscal record in an effort to counter this lie, but this advice was rejected. (The paper I wrote came out in 2013, but still to my knowledge Labour has never used it.)
I have seen two reasons given for why Labour chose not to defend its record: Miliband wanted to establish his independence from a government that had lost an election (to ‘move on’), and it was thought that the Coalition strategy of blaming the last government would lose its potency after a year or two. The second argument proved horribly wrong. Instead the ‘clearing up the mess’ line was used to blame Labour for damage caused by 2010 austerity. It was complete nonsense, but it worked.
In a way 2011 and 2012 were too easy for Labour: the economy was stagnant and Osborne looked vulnerable. But Labour should have anticipated that growth would return at some point before the election - if I could, surely they could. They will not have anticipated the stagnant productivity that allowed unemployment to fall so rapidly, but in political terms growth would have probably trumped high unemployment anyway, as I suggested back in 2012.
What should have happened in 2012 is that the ‘too far, too fast’ line should have changed to become a full blown attack on austerity: that was their second big mistake. By 2012 it was obvious that fears about a UK debt crisis had been completely overblown. The problem with ‘too far, too fast’ is that it sounded like austerity-lite: the need to focus on the deficit was conceded. Labour could have easily got away with changing its line at this point. They could have said that we thought there was a debt funding problem, but now we know there wasn’t. The argument that austerity should be postponed until the recovery is assured (i.e. when interest rates are well away from the Zero Lower Bound) was right in terms of the macroeconomics, but it would also have allowed Labour to combat the ‘clearing up the mess’ line, and profited from Osborne’s move to plan B.
Instead Labour seemed to be constantly triangulating between sensible macroeconomics and what the focus groups were telling them, and thereby producing a policy that failed to convince. Their fiscal policy proposals going into the 2015 election were much more sensible than George Osborne’s, but instead of attacking his renewed austerity they tried to pretend that they too were ‘tough on the deficit’. It was left to the SNP to argue against austerity.
The problem was that instead of presenting a clear alternative vision, Labour looked like it was always playing catch-up with Osborne. As John Curtice writes: “the Achilles’ heel of Labour’s campaign appears to have been a failure to convince those who were sceptical about the Conservatives’ economic record that Labour offered an attractive alternative.” As Lord Ashcroft’s polls show, and as I noted sometime before the election, by 2015 around half the public were against the continuation of austerity, yet Labour’s message on this was confused.
Today Labour continues to think that triangulating on the deficit, or worse just copying Osborne, is the answer. I think this tells us a great deal about the Labour party. That it is light on good macroeconomic advice and expertise, of course. But also that it spends too much time listening to people in the Westminster bubble and fails to spend time thinking about basic electoral strategy.
What Labour needs to ask now is what will prevent the Conservatives convincing the electorate in 2020 that Labour just cannot be trusted on the economy? Admitting their past fiscal mistakes when in government now, however much that is partial and hedged, will just give ammunition to their opponents in five years time. (Just read this, and extract the quotes.) More serious still, by allowing the focus to remain on the deficit, it lets Osborne get away with the damage he inflicted in 2010-2012, and the continuing social costs of austerity. What is the point in talking about the record on growth or productivity, when you appear to have conceded that reducing the deficit is all important, and Osborne is doing plenty of it?
In my New Statesman piece I say it is still not too late to change tack, stop triangulating and try something new - to start telling the truth. But I think there is a danger that this sentence frames the discussion in the wrong way, so it appears to be a contest between pursuing the right policy and winning elections. This post is all about the best way of regaining economic credibility, which means taking a strategic view rather than looking at what sounds good to today’s focus group. Put simply, if around half the electorate already think austerity should not continue, why on earth are Labour giving in to deficit fetishism? In electoral terms, the fact that attacking austerity is also good macroeconomics is just a bonus.