Is austerity an economic failure or a fact of life?

The British Labour Party conference proved a bit of an anti-climax. After the excitement of the last week’s Scottish referendum this was probably inevitable. All the more so since the Labour leadership did not want to talk about the important issues that referendum has raised on for the British constitution. But this conference marked in important stage in the evolution of the Labour leadership’s policy platform. They have finally, publicly and unequivocally accepted austerity as the centrepiece of their economic policy. This is rather muted, of course. The right wing press, who still set the country’s news agenda, do not want to give Labour any credit for this. Labour’s left wing supporters still think that austerity is a failed economic strategy, promoted by a “neoliberal” elite as a means of shrinking the power of government. These supporters do not want to be too vocal this close to a General Election; besides they were soothed by some diversionary promises regarding Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) and the minimum wage. But this left wing critique of austerity bears further examination.

It is expounded with some clarity in today’s Guardian by the journalist Seumus Milne: Austerity has failed, and it isn’t only Labour’s core voters who want change. To start with Mr Milne points out that Labour’s core voters, working class people, are unhappy and Labour can’t take them for granted. In Scotland they defected en masse to the SNP’s Yes campaign – and its claim that Scottish independence meant that they could roll back austerity. In England Ukip is making inroads into Labour’s core vote. Labour can’t simply take these voters for granted and then go after the “centre ground” voters who are liable to be swayed by the right wing press. This is perfectly true, of course, but not very helpful in its own right.

He then goes on to the familiar critique of austerity (cutting back public expenditure), which is that it has failed both in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. In Britain, growth is based on shallow foundations: unfunded consumer expenditure; average living standards are still sinking and many poorer people are suffering real hardship. In other European countries, notably France, there is no growth at all. This critique builds on that of Keynesian economists. In the earlier years of the government’s austerity programme they suggested that by cutting demand, or refusing to stimulate it, austerity simply created a doom-loop of shrinkage – or failed to ignite a virtuous circle of positive demand. The cuts were simply too early. This critique was eagerly seized on by the left. The trouble is that in Britain it has been overtaken by events. Growth has returned, mainly as the result of increased consumer borrowing, but also through higher business investment. There is not need to use public money to stimulate the economy further. Now is the “later” that the Keynesians were talking about when they said the cuts should be made later. It is does not matter that the initial spurt of growth was based on shallow foundations, as Keynesian fiscal stimulus is open to exactly the same criticism.

In fact the government’s application of austerity never lived up to the rhetoric. The cuts have been relatively modest, and as a result the deficit (excess of government expenditure over taxes and other income) has not been reduced by anything like as much as the original plans. The government finances still look very shaky and unsustainable. To a large extent things have been propped up by the Bank of England buying up government debt (“Quantitative Easing”, or “printing money” as some economists would have it). This only works when inflation is not a serious threat, and the Bank has indicated that continued purchases are no longer sustainable.

Things get worse when you look at the details more closely. The Economist points out that the country’s tax revenues are not keeping up with the country’s growth rate, making the deficit harder to cut. The reasons are not entirely clear, but two contributory factors should cause those on the left to worry. The first is that the government has been rapidly advancing tax free allowances, a flagship policy of the Liberal Democrats. This has helped relieve the economic pressure on the oft-forgotten marzipan layer of Britain’s poor. Those who are working and do not qualify for state benefits. But it also means that if wages are stagnant the government sees little benefit from growth. The second, related, factor is that Britain’s tax take is heavily dependent on the very rich. The Economist says that the top 1% of earners are thought to contribute 28% of income tax receipts. The position of other taxes may not be so very different. That means that pressure on the very rich, and notably the banking sector, is choking off tax receipts. All this suggests that raising taxes without hurting the ordinary working classes will be very difficult to achieve.

The serious economic case against austerity is not quite dead, though. The FT’s Martin Wolf, for example, suggests that prolonged fiscal (and trade) deficits may be required to counterbalance the insistence of some countries, notably China, to run export surpluses, and so create a surplus of savings. But his suggestion is that state funded investment is the best way of achieving this, not the continued propping up of the benefits system and a high volume of public services. That still leaves the most painful aspects of austerity intact.

The fact is that some very powerful forces, global and local, are bearing down on economic growth. These include demographics, the evolution of the Chinese economy (reducing the supply of cheap exported manufactured goods – so important to developed world living standards in the 1990s and 2000s) and (perhaps) by a focus amongst the slightly better-off on quality of life rather than income maximisation. It was once thought that any well-functioning developed economy could grow at 2% a year. That now looks infeasible. Which makes the management of government debt (and private debt for that matter) a serious long-term problem. It gets worse, as to achieve any sort of growth requires the economy to become more efficient, not least in public services. This involves the sort disruptive changes that the left’s core supporters hate most of all.

To be fair on the left, though, one of the causes of low growth is the excessive accumulation of wealth by the very rich – and this can only be tackled using an agenda that looks leftwards. But chasing down this wealth is increasingly a global problem, that needs global solutions, and not socialism in one country. This is ironic, as one of the symptoms of working class disillusion is a rejection of internationalism. It is no coincidence that the right wing press is happy to undermine international institutions, though.

Mr Milne calls for some kind of post capitalist economic reform, with increased state intervention. It is hugely unclear what this reform agenda would comprise, and whether it could work. The last country to vocally reject capitalism was Venezuela, whose oil wealth allowed it to cock a snook at the capitalist world. That is ending in utter economic and social disaster. Starvation and oppression in North Korea, and terminal economic stagnation in Cuba offer no better way forward.

The world is changing, and many Britons hate it. But with large trade and fiscal deficits Britain must embrace change or face economic catastrophe. That is the truth that Labour’s leaders are facing up to – and it is not a spineless surrender to the forces of big business.