‘We can afford this’
It is set to be a spending election, the first since the mid-1960s in which both major parties are promising significant borrow-and-spend programmes. Both parties have also proposed new sets of fiscal rules. Labour plans to adopt, in the words of the Resolution Foundation, an ‘innovative new approach which focuses on the country’s entire balance sheet (its assets and liabilities) rather than just narrowly on a sub-set of those liabilities (debt)’. Considering debt alone has led to perverse incentives: Northampton County Council, for example, recently sold its head office to a private company, from which it now rents the building. Recent IMF analysis puts the UK second-lowest in a group of 33 countries ranked by public sector net worth. Labour’s rules would also allow the government to engage in stimulus spending if there were a repeat of the 2008 financial crisis.
But fiscal rules rarely make headlines, and they don’t sway elections. The Tories’ spending plans are still vague, and their strategy on the economy so far has been to attack Labour: their headline figure of £1.2 trillion has been on the lips of every minister and backbencher interviewed on TV. This has meant some squirming when Conservatives have been confronted with the questionable arithmetic behind the attack, their own inflated claims, or their reluctance to say how much they would spend; but the sum looks vast, implausible and, they hope, unsettling to anyone who has internalised Osbornomics. The Tories have ducked direct confrontation – Sajid Javid has withdrawn from a proposed TV debate with John McDonnell – but thanks to billboard and Facebook ads, and a soundbite media culture, the expectation is that the figure will stick, and few voters will care about the credibility of the sums behind it.
With both parties competing over spending, the strategic calculus for the election alters: whether or not spending is a good thing matters less than where the money is spent, who it will benefit, and whether the parties can be trusted to keep their promises. Serious questions await the Conservatives on how sustainable their spending can be without raising taxes on the wealthy, or with the economic dislocation of a hard Brexit. It’s difficult, too, for them to resurrect 2010’s attack lines on the economy when austerity has vanished from the policy lexicon; Harold Macmillan warned his party in 1959 not to talk of Labour ‘spending sprees’ – for people who have lived through a straitened decade, spending may sound rather appealing. The last true disciple of Coalition-era doctrine turns out to be Vince Cable, grumbling about a ‘raid on Santa’s grotto’.
Labour’s ‘British Broadband’ policy looks likely be the focus of attacks over the coming week. The programme involves bringing parts of BT back into public ownership in order to roll out full-fibre internet connections across the UK, providing fast and free broadband for all. The policy involves a new unitary tax on multinationals – with such digital giants as Amazon squarely in its sights – and a proposed Charter of Digital Rights to protect against surveillance. Coverage of the proposal has been wall-to-wall, and opponents of the scheme have yet to hit on a strong attack line against it: there has been kvetching about investments in BT shares, quibbling over capital sums, and occasional frothing over confiscation of property. Boris Johnson dismissed it this afternoon as a ‘crazed communist scheme’.
The policy’s prominence ahead of the manifesto launch suggests that Labour strategists think it offers serious political advantages. Certainly, it touches on many of Labour’s key themes: universal access and provision, public ownership, ending regional inequality, and using technological investment to tackle climate change (not least through reduced need for commuting). The policy ought to help people trying to get their benefits from the DWP as much as start-up enterprises or small businesses. The internet is as central to everyday life across classes and communities as the road network: at the moment, people effectively pay the equivalent of a flat tax – on average £30 a month – to access it.
Another, wider hope rides on the policy: Labour hopes to make this a ‘measures, not men’ election, moving the debate beyond the personality of the leaders. Conventionally, policy doesn’t drive elections, but many Labour strategists think that the broad vision of the 2017 manifesto was an engine for the ‘Corbyn surge’. The scope of the broadband policy – acknowledging people’s fears about a growing culture of digital surveillance and data extraction, and their distaste at the tax avoidance of vastly profitable digital enterprises – points to an attempt to expand that vision for 2019.
It may be a deliberate echo of Harold Wilson’s enthusiasm for ‘the white heat of the technological revolution’. But it is also simpler than that. It may sometimes seem as if the UK’s major infrastructure projects have all been finished: they were completed by the ambitious titans of the Victorian age, or, at the latest, the reforming governments of the postwar period. On this view, no equivalent of the railway network, the sanitation system, the electricity grid or the NHS remains to be built. Labour’s broadband policy argues otherwise, and seeks to open a new frontier of ambition and optimism. For all the conjuring of communist bogeymen, the prophet here isn’t Marx but Keynes. In a BBC lecture in 1942, thinking of postwar reconstruction, Keynes ridiculed the assumption that life must be miserly or poor, and outlined a vision of public affluence in shared civic space. In a prophetic reproof to the latter half of the 20th century, he said:
Assuredly we can afford this and much more. Anything we can actually do we can afford. Once done, it is there. Nothing can take it from us. We are immeasurably richer than our predecessors. Is it not evident that some sophistry, some fallacy, governs our collective action if we are forced to be so much meaner than they in the embellishments of life?