Opinion polls show that the Conservatives are the most trusted party on the economy. This gives them a big advantage over the Labour opposition, which they are trying to exploit by promising reckless tax cuts. The Tories say that the crisis was caused by the recklessness of the previous Labour government, which necessitated firm austerity policies, which in turn have led to a strong recovery. Labour supporters are sore about this, but their party leaders seem forced to meekly accept the Conservative economic narrative – and promise strict fiscal discipline. And yet economics writer Ha-Joon Chang writes in the Guardian that the Tory narrative is a fairy tale. Why aren’t the political class trying to challenge the narrative?
I am tempted to pick apart Mr Chang’s own narrative. He denies that the record of the previous Labour government was irresponsible, with the crisis in public finances simply inflicted by changes to the world economy. He further suggests that the coalition’s austerity policies to meet the crisis were misguided, and that the current recovery is not as good as it is made out to be. A lot of his claims are tendentious, and there is some sleight of hand with the numbers. But it is perfectly literate in an economic sense, and there is deal of truth in his claims, alongside the disingenuousness. This sort of argument tends to a turn-off for many of my readers. I would like to address the question he raises more directly: “Why did Britain’s political class buy the Tories’ economic fairytale?”
The first point is that we should remember the sense of shock that both the public and the political class felt as the scale of the economic crisis became plain in 2008 and 2009. This followed nearly 15 years of continuous growth in Britain. The political class felt that the economic problem had been cracked by Labour’s policymakers (though the first part of the growth period was under the Tory John Major). Gordon Brown, the Labour Chancellor in their part of the growth period, declared “no more boom and bust”. That caught the zeitgeist. Political thinktankers argued over how to distribute the proceeds of growth, which was assumed to be in the region of 2-3% for the foreseeable future. Mr Brown believed his claim; he was inclined to lecture political leaders from other countries (especially other European countries) on how wonderful his economic leadership was. And so when the economic performance proved to be so vulnerable, even if we accept that the shocks came from outside Britain, it was more than shocking. Our whole outlook on the British economy collapsed. And it must be pointed out that the scale of the economic crash in Britain was worse than in any other major developed economy. Labour’s claims were based on hubris. Any narrative that does not acknowledge this hubris (and Mr Chang’s does not, in this article at least) will not be politically credible. This trumps the fact that Tory claims about Labour’s recklessness are overdone or misplaced (e.g. because they criticise welfare policy rather than cutting income tax rates).
And that leads to a critical question. Why was the British economy so vulnerable? Was is really just a slightly bigger blip on a standard economic cycle, or were there elements to the pre-crash economy that were unsustainable? There are plenty of reasons to think it might be the latter. Inflation had been kept in check by cheap imports and a high pound, and yet there was a large trade deficit. The tax system had been tilted towards property transactions and capital gains, and away from ordinary income tax – which meant that the bust hit revenues very hard, and were difficult to revive in the recession that followed. The economy as a whole depended heavily on bubbly international finance and oil (whose price had just rocketed); amongst other things this gave a false perspective on productivity. Productivity based on fake profits in finance is not the same as the majority of workers steadily increasing their output. If you believe that there were substantial unsustainable elements to the economy, then you also believe that simple Keynesian stimulus would not be a path out of the crisis – this would be flogging a dead horse. That still leaves room for a respectable Keynesian critique of coalition government policy (especially if stimulus is concentrated on investments), but it also points to austerity policies being inevitable at some point.
And then there are the secular trends. There are the technology changes that, for now at least, seem to push economic rewards into minorities who either have the right skills or who own capital. That is a global trend. There are demographic changes; it is a boon that people are living longer – but that does imply structural changes to the way society works, and especially the tax and benefits system. And there is the growing up of the developing world economies, especially in China, which are no longer a source of ever cheaper imports. With such trends – and I could go on – is it any wonder that economic performance has been weak?
And so it should become clear why the Tory narrative is left to hold the field. An alternative narrative is very difficult to construct. To be credible such an alternative must contain challenging elements – that we can’t just bounce back to 2% growth by reversing cuts to public expenditure, as some on the left appear to believe. It has to acknowledge failings in the pre-crash British economy, and that strong well-distributed growth will be difficult to obtain in the future. Labour do not want to develop such a clear narrative, because they are reluctant to face up to their own hubris. In fact, as I have argued, Labour’s need to hold together its fragile coalition means that it does not want to develop a clear economic narrative at all.
And if Labour won’t produce the alternative narrative, who will? The Lib Dems are part of the coalition, and as such are happy to go along with most of the Tory version. They would emphasise that the austerity policies were not as austere as billed, and that borrowing for investment would be a good idea – but they do not challenge the main thrust. Ukip have decided to base their narrative on opposition to the EU and immigration – and as a result their economic policies have no coherence – they do not want to upset their own coalition of the angry. The Greens have decided to be the “Ukip of the left”, and blame all our troubles on failed neo-liberalism. They are against austerity policies, and yet want to rebalance the economy towards green growth, which surely implies a leaner public sector. This is a have-your-cake-and-eat-it stance, which will not stand up to close public scrutiny.
A credible alternative to the Tory narrative is hard to construct, and no political party wants to take the job on, because it would undermine their own wider political strategy. Mr Chang himself seems to acknowledge the problem in his rousing penultimate paragraph:
The country is in desperate need of a counter narrative that shifts the terms of debate. A government budget should be understood not just in terms of bookkeeping but also of demand management, national cohesion and productivity growth. Jobs and wages should not be seen simply as a matter of people being “worth” (or not) what they get, but of better utilising human potential and of providing decent and dignified livelihoods. Ways have to be found to generate economic growth based on rising productivity rather than the continuous blowing of asset bubbles.
Amen to that. But what chance do our humble politicians have of constructing such a wonderful narrative, when this poses so many unanswered questions? Might I suggest that Mr Chang spend more time suggesting “ways… to generate growth based on rising productivity” and not just joining the whinge-fest about our inadequate politicians?