Some grim reading for George Osborne

The IMF suggests the chancellor has shot the whole country in the foot


Did Labour spend too much? Even after the election, the question keeps popping up.

When it is asked of Labour politicians, it means: do you accept now that the Tory attack line all the way through the coalition government, that you can’t trust Labour with the economy, was true?

I’m saddened to say that attack line won the Tories the election. Even where Labour could lead – the NHS – it only took the Tories reminding the electorate that without a good economy our NHS would tank, and the conversation was back to how Labour had failed the economy.

But yesterday saw the publication of a very detailed, and very clever, discussion paper by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) which sought to raise an angle on the national debt question that its authors had felt was under-explored: what if trying to reduce the national debt as quickly as possible is doing more damage than good?

What if choosing debt reduction over investment, choking off vital services along the way, is causing great harm to the UK?

This is a question that needs to be aimed directly at George Osborne. Why, at a time when we had historically low interest rates, and what the IMF have accurately referred to as ‘ample fiscal space’ (the ability to raise taxes or spend money to reduce the ratio between national debt and GDP), did he not spend more on infrastructure to insure our economy for the future?

Perhaps because the chancellor was in charge of the narrative that said Labour spent too much. For those people who assumed that high public debt would be burdensome on economic growth, and thus the recovery, the IMF had this to say to summarise their position:

“A second rationale for why high public debt needs to be brought down is the belief that high public debt weighs on economic growth.

“While causality runs both ways, an important causal channel is taxation: high public debt implies the need to distort economic activity (labour, capital) to service the debt (either through taxation or cuts in productive spending), which dampens economic growth.

“A reasonable idea is that laying the foundation for sustainable growth requires paying the upfront cost of reducing the debt today.”

It’s this line of argument that had been used by Osborne while not actually following it fully. Under him, public debt has risen. Don’t believe me? Quoth The Telegraph:

“George Osborne has added more to the public debt in 5 years than the previous government did in 13.”

Though the real point here is that the coalition has only cut the deficit by half as a proportion of Britain’s national income.

We must always remember that the coalition’s plan didn’t work; the wizardry of cutting the deficit, while choosing not to take advantage of low interest rates, didn’t come to fruition.

So maybe when Osborne could see this reality, he ought to have changed tack. As William Keegan recently said in his book on Osborne’s time in the last parliament, an honest chancellor would have at least said something.

Instead he held to a view that debt is bad for growth. Full stop. He didn’t explain what that meant because that would have been off-message.

So when someone asks whether Labour spent too much, and whether Osborne was right to bring on swingeing cuts, the stock answer should be the following: paying down national debt might be desirable, but doing so at the expense of taking advantage of low costs for spending and investing may be akin to shooting the whole country in the foot.

What has come about as a result of Osbornomics is a low-wage recovery, where we are all in debt, many of us super-exposed to rising interest rates, and limping along in full knowledge of a missed opportunity on things like infrastructure spending. This does not make for a healthy growth model.

The IMF paper yesterday shows that George Osborne did not hold a monopoly on how best to bring about recovery after an economic crisis. He should read it and weep.

Carl Packman is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward and the author of Loansharks: The rise and rise of payday lending

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18 Responses to “Some grim reading for George Osborne”

  1. stevep

    Good article and quite correct, however it is not how the state mass propaganda rags (our free? press) see it or will tell it.
    Osborne`s handling of the economy serves only a far-right agenda, not the well being of the vast majority of the people of this country.

  2. johnontheleft

    My own response to this question is that reducing the deficit and/or running a surplus is not inherently desirable – the deficit is actually just money that the government creates to go in to public services that isn’t taken out again in the form of taxation (one myth is that taxation funds public services – not at government level – it’s actually just a way of ‘destroying’ money). There are risks with running a deficit, such as the potential for hyperinflation, etc… but there are equal risks with attempting to run a surplus in conditions such as these. In any case, neither the deficit nor the debt are quite what they seem. To whom is the money owed? Nobody. The debt is just the amount of money created vs the amount deleted – they’re borrowing it off themselves.

  3. David McKendrick

    Isn’t this what Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader said all through the lead up to the election?

  4. rioisace

    Obviously you can’t just cut your way out of an economic crisis. It’s a crisis because the problem is structural, otherwise it would just be debt. Anybody with the slightest idea of economics would tell you that. Arbitrarily hacking away at huge swathes of infrastructure is at best a solution that Alan Davies would give on QI before being sirened, but more likely what a child would suggest.

    Say what you like about Labour, but at the helm of their party they had at least at least 3 people with postgraduate degrees in Economics, all of which either studied at Harvard or actually lectured there.

    George Osborne on the other hand, has a 2:1 in Modern History. Now this is a perfectly good degree, but not if you want to be the person at the helm of an entire country’s fucking economy.

  5. jimmyfish

    Borrowed more in fiveyrs than Labour did in 13yrs. Ha! they won’t tell you that and the sots are giving themselves a 10% pay rise -what for? None of the main three parties are worth what they are paid!

  6. poort

    Christ this is what the SNP have been saying for years

  7. marje arnold


  8. Harold

    Osbourne may well go down in history as one of the worst Chancellors ever to control the nations finances, the nation could have borrowed for Capital projects which would have helped the economy become more productive, earn more, export more and bring in more in taxes, so reducing the deficit.

  9. Brian

    Stewart Hosie the Deputy Leader of the SNP was saying just that today on his Queens speech amendment on Austerity. The Labour Party abstained. Another blow for the cause of socialism hahahaaaaaaaa. Red Tories OUT!

  10. Brian

    Cos they’re pish?

  11. Gary Westhead


  12. Anne Duncan

    Yes it is.. and many well known and respected Economists (one a Noble prize winner) agree, as do the Greens. Westminster is the only government that haven’t dropped austerity because it not only doesn’t help the economy… it makes the economy worse (proven many times). You can’t sell your way out of debt forever… eventually you’ll have nothing left to sell.

  13. marichsmart

    That is one of the best answers I’ve read in a long time

  14. Rod price

    Why did the common left not say it from 2010 onwards the debt lie is the rotten foundation on which the Tory house of cards has been built. If we (the left, labour and others) had time and time again said THIS IS TORY LIE, we wouldn’t have the mandateless “Gvt” we have now!

  15. interiris

    you only have to look at the Canadian economy at the time who did not deregulate the banks and weathered the storm with a strong dollar and money to invest in developing projects. but people brought the conservative line hook line and sinker

  16. Nigel de Gruchy

    Yes, this is absolutely true. Furthermore, Osborne quietly abandoned his ‘big economic plan’ in 2012 to rely upon the osmosis of the so called free market to producer growth, and began using quantitative easing which he had described as “the modern equivalent of printing money” and something only done “by a government that had run out of options” when Brown and Darling had deployed QE a few years earlier. Only then did Osborne produce some growth, albeit not of the best kind and still seriously ‘unbalanced’ in favour of finance and housing.

  17. Torybushhug

    Here we go again, the left desperate to borrow more, but when the inevitable downturn comes along we are left dangerously exposed and leaden.

    Can’t the left be a little more imaginative? Spending and borrowing is thier only tune.

  18. Tom

    I’d be surprised if ‘years’ – they were parrotting Tory line and accusing Labour of overspending not too long ago. Opportunists through and through.

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