No matter how bad the economic news, government ministers can always take heart that an attack from Labour will always be blunted by the simple line that ‘Labour would borrow more’. It’s why David Cameron managed to sail through Prime Minister’s Questions last week relatively unscathed even though Ed Miliband chose to make his attack on the loss of the credit rating. It’s a problem for the Labour leadership that Edward Carlsson Browne raises today on LabourList, but his argument is that Labour should be honest that it would borrow more as a government. He writes:
We are different from the Tories. We would run the economy better. But if we want to convince people of that, they need to trust us. And if we want their trust, we need to tell them what we’d do. Yes, we’d borrow more. We’d borrow now, because if we don’t get people back to work, we’ll be borrowing to pay for their welfare payments for the next two decades. We’d borrow now because borrowing is as cheap as it’ll ever be, and this country needs a new generation of infrastructure. We’d borrow to get this country back on its feet, so that we don’t need to borrow any more.
Browne has a good point, which is that it would be nice if politicians were honest about their economic plans. Similarly, it would be nice if ministers in this government hadn’t spent the past two and a half years telling voters that ‘we’re paying down Britain’s debts’ when the graph below shows they’re doing anything but.
There are those within Labour who think that Ed Balls does need to talk more about his own approach to the deficit and borrowing. But what Browne doesn’t address is that this is very difficult to do when you’re basically talking about more of the same. Ed Miliband tried to do this at Prime Minister’s Questions in January, where he told David Cameron that he was ‘borrowing for failure… and he is borrowing more for failure’. Labour, meanwhile, would borrow for success, as Browne argues. But this is a very difficult argument to make to the public. It would be ‘our borrowing is good borrowing, and it would involve even more borrowing than this government, which lost its credit rating because it was borrowing for failure’. This is the sort of debate that might work on the floor of the House of Commons or at an IFS seminar, but it’s going to be a nightmare to sell to voters, which is why Labour isn’t being more upfront about borrowing.