Judged by any reasonable economic standards, George Osborne is a failure as a chancellor. Judged by his own economic standards, he’s a spectacular one.
It’s generally preferable to hold political figures to the standards they’ve set for themselves. For instance, to somebody who insists on their leaders being a paragon of leftist virtue, David Cameron is always going to be a failure of a Prime Minister – a gloating, duplicitous pie with a special ingredient of massive redistribution of wealth from the poorest to the richest.
When it surfaced that Cameron may have inserted his penis into a dead pig’s mouth in order to get into an upper class drinking club at university, those who already disliked him felt less surprised than validated; that the man of whom they could not have had a lower opinion had allegedly done something so base and disgusting, and for the same kind of posho, social-ladder-climbing reasons that they despise his politics.
But the problem with just saying “Conservatives are wankers and David Cameron is extra wankerish so of course they’re going to all be wankers” is that (as well as being a bit rude) it eschews any kind of relativity; sure, the Conservative government we have at the moment is enormously socially deleterious, but imagine how much worse they’d be if more prominence was given to the party’s assorted homophobes and Ayn Rand fans. Whilst I might dispute the very fundamentals of their ideology, here are different schools of British conservatism.
If, to you, conservatism means “shitting on the poor and vulnerable,” then not only have the Conservatives actually been doing a great job over the last six years, but you haven’t even given them a chance to succeed on what are actually their own terms; getting the economy back on track, reducing the deficit so as to “balance the books”, and creating a fair, prosperous (remember, fairness can only come with prosperity) One Nation society in the mould of Cameron’s trademark “compassionate conservatism.”
Although many individual Coalition/Conservative policies from the Bedroom Tax to the Tampon Tax betray a conspicuous lack of governmental benevolence, one episode recounted in February by walking compromise Nick Clegg truly pours scorn on the whole notion of Cameron’s “compassionate conservatism.”
Britain is currently in the grips of a housing crisis. The Conservatives have built fewer houses than any government since David Lloyd George’s in the 1920s; a particularly impressive feat considering that the Blair government already built fewer houses than any government since the 1920s (Blair is Cameron’s political hero; maybe the Prime Minister is just engaging in a bit of friendly competition). Studies show that since 2010 homelessness in England has risen by 33% or 42% – either way, a substantial rise. Families uprooted to B&Bs and hostels have risen by a whopping 100%. As rents continue to outstrip earnings, more and more people are in need of affordable social housing.
According to Nick Clegg, when the Liberal Democrats tried to persuade their coalition partners to consider building more homes, the Prime Minister and Chancellor informed them that “all it does is produce more Labour voters.” Translation: if we don’t build homes for poor people they’ll freeze to death, then won’t be able to vote Labour. This cynical abdication of the state’s responsibilities for reasons of electoral triangulation betrays the icy vacuum at the heart of David Cameron and George Osborne’s “compassionate conservatism.”
And then there’s the Conservatives’ wholly unearned reputation for economic competence. When it comes to who’s trusted with the nation’s finances, the Tories still have a considerable polling lead. The idea that New Labour were extremely profligate and that this contributed to the 2008 crisis is still used by Conservatives as a stick with which to beat Labour. In the latest Prime Minister’s Questions, Cameron responded to a question by Corbyn about £4.4bn of unaccounted spending with one of his usual juvenile, evasive quips; “Suddenly, the king of fiscal rectitude speaks!”
This is what counts for a sick burn in Westminster, apparently, despite it being patent bullshit on a number of levels. For a start, the idea that Labour’s public spending (backed right until the recession by the Conservatives) was a contributing factor to the recession caused by a global banking crisis is absolute nonsense; the mistakes made by Labour were more along the lines of not sufficiently regulating the financial sector (the Tories wanted to regulate it even less) and actually not investing enough in housing, manufacturing and whatever else would have rebalanced the economy away from a reliance on it.
Secondly, given his backbench obscurity at the time, the policies of the last Labour government were clearly not the brainchild of Jeremy Corbyn; although, to be fair, he probably would’ve voted for a lot of the spending-related stuff (not the wars, though, and they’re very expensive.) Thirdly, when managing the Greater London Council’s £3bn budget and later that of the Association of London Authorities, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell’s reputation as a left-wing firebrand was only eclipsed by a propensity for, in fact, fiscal rectitude. Ken Livingstone, who ran the GLC in the 1980s, has said of McDonnell’s tenure there; “Every year, a balanced budget. Never a penny of borrowing. You can’t say that about bloody Osborne.”
One of McDonnell’s best media moments was on his most recent Question Time appearance, when a member of the audience asked if the top rate of income tax should be lowered to 40p, as lowering it from 50p to 45p had apparently raised the treasury £8bn from the super rich. This is the kind of nitty-gritty boring numbery shit where most politicians would flail helplessly like a goose trying to fly a plane, but McDonnell shot back with some of that good-ass Institute for Fiscal Studies analysis.
What had happened was a case of some very sneaky tax planning; rich people had delayed their payments or bonuses until the year when the tax was reduced, creating an artificial low for one year and an equally phony high for the next. In fact, according to the IFS, the exchequer stands to lose up to £360m over the next five years because the rate was lowered. But the figure was easy enough for Osborne to conjure up, and sounds plausible enough if you don’t instinctively distrust the super-rich with the burning vehemence of a thousand proletarian suns.
Although Osborne was not there amongst the plebs in person, it was less like McDonnell had limply waved Chairman Mao’s puny Red Book across the dispatch box and more like he’d lobbed a weighty copy of Das Kapital directly at the chancellor’s head. The type of “creative accountancy” he highlighted is exemplary of the way Osborne has tried to cover for his numerous and substantial failures.
The kind of sneaky shit Osborne tries to pull to cover his squalidly iniquitous tracks ranges from attempting to redefine child poverty as a consequence of “lifestyle choices”, to “scrapping an official analysis that shows how much money his budgets take from the poor and give to the richest” (a story that literally dropped today.) Whilst food bank use rapidly rises, there is no official record kept of hunger in the United Kingdom. Osborne is trying to skew the figures so the vulnerable don’t count.
Upon assuming office, he told us the plan was to deliver a budget surplus by 2015. This didn’t happen. By the time of the General Election, the rhetoric had turned into proud boasts of having halved the deficit. His rhetoric about the evils of borrowing doesn’t stack up against the fact that between 2010 and 2013 he borrowed more than the last Labour government did over thirteen years. He has missed targets for productivity and growth, and blames it all on the global economy, whilst according to him the worldwide ruptures of 2008 were all Labour’s fault.
But the worst thing is, when Osborne fucks up, and it turns out the economy hasn’t blossomed into the free market utopia of his dreams, he always finds a way to make the people who most need help suffer for it.
Despite Newsnight’s laughable panel (with a 3-1 right-left ratio) of fusty old Telegraph/Spectator dudes cooing about a “very centre-ground budget,” Andrew Sparrow’s figures for the Guardian show that the poorest half of households will lose £375 by 2020 from Osborne’s post-election polices, while the richest half gain £235. By 2020, the poorest 20% are set to lose an average of £550 from these policies, whilst the richest 20% gain £250. From his cuts in income tax, the richest households gain £225. The poor get a tenner.
The budget Osborne laid out would also hit disabled people nineteen times harder than the average person. Nineteen times.
Where Osborne has really come unstuck is on the fallacy that has gone virtually unquestioned in the United Kingdom for so long; that the best route away from budget deficit and towards economic growth is to cut public spending. Having framed their brand of austerity as a clear, responsible alternative to the Labour Party’s fictitious frivolous spending, the Conservatives made big political capital out of the fact that the harmful cuts they were inflicting on essential services were all necessary in the name of the public good; just common sense economics. “Our Long-Term Economic Plan.”
Even as many countries abandoned their austerity policies and consensus grew around the world that investment was the way to stimulate an economy, the Tories persisted. Or, rather, they didn’t really; they sort of stopped and started. They’d cut some stuff, realise it was harming the economy, and quietly, slightly embarrassedly have to spend quite a lot more on basic things that human beings need (hint: if you create a lot of vulnerable people, they’re going to need a welfare state). Osborne abandoned the bulk of his austerity policies in 2013 after they slowed recovery, almost causing a double-dip recession, but has kept cutting things periodically since, because if he didn’t he’d be conceding that his entire project has been based on shit policy.
This is what the Labour Party have been arguing since Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader in September; that austerity has been a political rather than an economic choice. Even most of the jaded Blairites have come around to this idea; it’s pretty mainstream at this point. I don’t, however, expect anyone in Labour predicted they’d be joined in this chorus by Iain Duncan Smith.
That said, in the immediate aftermath of the general election, many of the more spineless Labour MPs wanted to just lie and pretend cuts were an economic necessity, because they didn’t have confidence in their own capacity to win an argument. I’m sure their dynamite strategy of not opposing welfare cuts would have played well when Duncan Smith resigned in (ostensible) moral protest at the Tories’ latest attack on the disabled. Labour would really have felt like the conscience of the nation.
A lot of people don’t like the left. They just don’t. They think we’re all inarticulate, abusive idiots who are dreaming of a tomorrow that can never come, and they wouldn’t want it to come anyway because then they might not have quite as much money. They see Jeremy Corbyn and they think “oh here we go, bloody loony left again, abolish this, abolish that, nationalise this…” Not their cup of tea.
Consequently, when he makes the same arguments that numerous reputable centre-left economists are making against wrongheaded austerity policies, just because it’s Corbyn some people will dismissively think “extremist claptrap.” But when Iain Duncan Smith ends up making the same argument, clearly not out of any deep-seated affection for socialism, the point they’re both making starts to seem quite an obvious one.
Maybe some are starting to see that, whilst Labour’s economic policy is increasingly pragmatic and practical, the Conservatives’ is in turn increasingly floundering in ideological assumptions about the private always trumping the public sector, floating aimlessly in whatever misguided direction Osborne thinks politically expedient at any given time. But he has found out the hard way that there is little political expedience in cutting key services for the disabled at the same time as giving corporations yet another tax cut, so big companies can come to the UK and not contribute to the exchequer. Even the less “compassionate” Conservatives can probably see the unfairness in that.
This is why Corbyn has shot up ten points in the latest Ipsos MORI poll to lead David Cameron (who has dropped ten) by fourteen points in leadership satisfaction ratings. His economic message – which makes room for both fiscal rectitude and a fundamental fairness – is coming through loud and clear, despite constant attacks from the right-wing Bonfire Pissers in his party, with their litany of brilliant oppositional strategies like “blanking Corbyn on Twitter,” “trying to outflank a panel of some of the world’s most credible economists on economic credibility,” and “supporting the government.”
Following what should be called Osborne’s Catastrofuck Budget (like “ominshambles,” taken from the brilliant The Thick Of It) Labour have overtaken the Conservatives in the polls for the first time since before the general election (although, naturally, it was reported as the first time since Corbyn became leader, as if the Labour Party was doing perfectly fine before Corbyn came along and spoilt everything for everyone.) Even in polls where Labour are still trailing the Conservatives, everything indicates a surge in their favour, whilst the “natural party of government” haemorrhages support.
Many journalists have begun parroting the line that Osborne has “ruled out” further cuts in this parliament. This is untrue. The Tories were forced to clarify that, whilst there are none slated at the moment, that is only for the time being, and they could be sprung on us in a future budget. One of the reasons Duncan Smith quit his job (other than a wish to join the EU Out campaign) was that, when people had such a strongly negative reaction to the cuts to disability benefits, Osborne asked the Work & Pensions Secretary to simply find the “savings” somewhere else in the welfare budget. Then, infuriating Duncan Smith by keeping him out of the loop, Nos. 10 and 11 put out the word that they’d scrapped the cuts altogether. As Osborne’s greasy, Big Oil-stained wheels screech into U-turn after U-turn, he looks ever more fickle and his choices ever more short-term.
So Labour, for the first time in a while, seems to be in a strong position. There’s little question that, for all the bawling and gnashing of teeth from some of the PLP’s market-loving, interventionist (although not when it comes to intervening in the market) anachronisms, Corbyn is winning his party’s internal battles, and now he seems to be gaining (ahem) momentum in a way that he hasn’t since the unprecedented triumph of his leadership campaign. Whilst David Cameron takes the edge off a shitty week with a little trip to Lanzarote, Corbyn should make sure to keep visible; to keep reinforcing his message of economic competence as a vehicle for social justice (indeed, in the hours after I initially uploaded this piece, he gave a rapturously received speech at the National Union of Teachers’ conference; the first party leader in living memory to do so.) Labour is already winning the argument on the Conservative austerity agenda in a way that it never did under Ed Miliband, and I feel more confident than I have in a while that they can make further headway. Sometimes honesty and decency go a long way.