Jonathan Todd on the challenge for the new shadow chancellor

The Labour leadership election will, finally, end on 25 September. But the identity of the shadow chancellor will be unknown until 7 October, when the results of the shadow cabinet election are announced. 13 days after this the new leader and shadow chancellor will lead our response to the comprehensive spending review. “It is”, as a leadership contender has said, “an incredibly tight timetable for the new leader and their shadow chancellor to map out a policy that might yet determine how we are viewed for the rest of the parliament.”

The general election too quickly gave way to the leadership election. (Which should have started later and been shorter). With the end of the leadership election, the formal involvement in the shadow cabinet election of four of our would-be leaders begins. This is a grueling pace. But the new leader and shadow chancellor will need immediately to demonstrate economic literacy, which means robustly critiquing George Osborne and articulating a credible and appealing alternative economic approach. While this is challenging, there are some relatively simple points that are worth underlining.

First, like the Liberal Democrats, we consistently warned prior to the general election that it was too much of a risk to the economy’s recovery to cut public spending this year. There is no evidence that these risks have significantly diminished.  Business credit remains weak. Lending to businesses fell for the eleventh consecutive month in July. Consumer demand remains sluggish, as tens of thousands of homeowners are expected to face at least four more years of negative equity and redundancies in the public sector are thought unlikely to be absorbed by additional private sector employment.

Second, no matter how the Liberal Democrats defend the shift in their position on public spending cuts this year, the UK is not Greece and was never in danger of becoming Greece. As Rachel Reeves has noted, national debt in the UK in 2009, as a percentage of GDP, was 72 percent, while in Greece it was 119 percent. Additionally, and crucially, having our own currency and a central bank that can set interest rates in the interests of the domestic economy provides us with far more flexibility than is available to the Greeks within the eurozone.

Third, our opposition to cuts this year derives from a deeper view: sustaining economic growth is an indispensible precondition of deficit reduction. In the absence of growth, the deficit will widen as tax receipts fall and unemployment benefit payments rise. Public debt levels are generally more sensitive to growth than changes in tax and spending. George Osborne can cut as aggressively as his Thatcherite heart desires, but if we slip back into recession this cutting will do little to contain the deficit. Indeed, it also risks a deflationary spiral if Osborne responds to recession by persisting with his cuts.

The risk to public finances posed by a double dip recession must be balanced against the risk of higher interest rates cascading through the economy – further credit crunching businesses and raising household mortgage payments – if the deficit reduction plan fails to convince markets. Reduce public spending too early and the double dip risk increases; cut too late and upward pressure on interest rates becomes more likely. George Osborne, in cutting earlier and by £40bn more deeply over this parliament, is putting more emphasis on the later risk than Alistair Darling’s plans do.

Yet, as no lesser economic authority than the FT’s Martin Wolf has observed, “the market is screaming its lack of concern about UK fiscal credibility”. In these circumstances, forcefully illustrated in Ed Balls’ Bloomberg speech, it is perverse for the chancellor to underplay the double dip risk of cutting too early and too deep for the sake of masochistic cuts ostensibly justified by market concern about the deficit.

In truth, Osborne’s plans are driven by an ideological imperative to reduce the size of the state. This goes against the premium which Anatole Kaletsky places upon pragmatism in Capitalism 4.0; his weighty tome on the financial crisis and capitalism’s future. “In an indeterminate world”, he writes, “both economic and institutional decisions will have to proceed by a zigzag process of trial and error.” Rather than this flexibility and adaptability, Osborne, as Pat McFadden has noted, has given us “faith-based economics”.

Labour must be careful, however, that we too do not become inflexible and dogmatic. While Osborne is underplaying the double dip risk, which even those red-blooded socialists at the British chamber of commerce worry about, and is willing a private sector led recovery through little more than his faith in it, the interest rate risk attached to the deficit should be squarely confronted by Labour. Being squeamish about this not only betrays our credentials as the party of pragmatic economics but leaves us seeming trapped in what Phil Collins has called “the comforting illusion that state spending is a straight line to progress”.

This illusion can attach to social as much as to economic policy. And the public sees through it. The mood music emanating from Labour risks seeming too statist if we seem unwilling straightforwardly and even-handedly to address the deficit. Alistair Darling has left plans which should take us a long way towards avoiding this outcome. But our new shadow chancellor will still have crucial decisions to take during a testing first fortnight in office.

Jonathan Todd is a consultant at Europe Economics and was a Parliamentary candidate at the 2010 election

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