The myth of Tory fiscal responsibility

Photo by Fabian Blank via Unsplash

After the first Labour Party leadership debates yesterday, I saw a comment in a Facebook thread complaining that Labour were not to be trusted with the economy. They were not, it was implied, fiscally responsible.

This is a term that is as portentous and as vacuous as the other term so often thrown about at the moment — electable. It means nothing outside either the Westminster bubble or the mainstream media when they seek to call into question the seriousness of the party.

Here’s why: the Tories are portrayed as fiscally responsible despite the state of the economy. Especially the state of the economy as it affects the majority of people in the country. For one thing — and it’s a big thing — they have vastly increased the debt and lowered the tax base since first coming into power in 2010.

Austerity was never an option during a financial crisis but they ignored the warnings of economists and enforced cuts. This is the fiscal responsibility of robbing the poor (and the middle classes) to give to the rich. And after destroying jobs selling off the assets at a bargain price to foreign corporations — and in some cases, foreign governments — they refused to implement stricter enforcement of tax avoidance and even lowered taxes further.

One fact will suffice: George Osborne, in his time as Chancellor, has created more debt than every — that’s every — Labour government combined. In March 2016, the amount of additional debt created under Osborne stood at £555 billion, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Allowing zero hours contracts, promoting a living wage that isn’t, and refusing to build social housing means that taxpayers — those among the population not wealthy enough to be able to employ the large accountancy firms to manage their offshore hoarding strategy — now cover the costs of housing benefit and sundry top-up payments to give the workers a quality of life slightly above that enjoyed by the zombies in The Walking Dead.

So for anyone to feel that the Tories continue to win elections because of their fiscal nous has really found a new dark place to put their head. Don’t breathe in too hard, would be my advice. Could it be, therefore, that what we see when Tory economic policy is reported in the press is not the whole truth? Could it be that the media owners who breathlessly proclaim the genius of Tory chancellors and their ability to manage the economy are not only being parsimonious with the truth but are hiding the fact that they benefit directly from the policies that impoverish the rest of us?

And the so-called liberal leaning technology companies such as Apple and Google are more than happy to eschew taxes while they send the vast profits made in the UK to sordid little accounts in sordid little tax havens.

So we see what electable means in this context. Those on the neoliberal side of the Labour Party (I’m now forbidden to use the shorthand term for that, according to the NEC) — which now appears to be the majority of the PLP — feel that for Labour to win an election requires policies that will simply replicate the shoddy economics of the Tories in power.

This surely becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Labour before Corbyn offered policies that were hard to differentiate from Tory policies and, at the same time, refused to combat the lies told about the financial crisis of 2008 or to make the case against austerity. Then the career politicians within the PLP wonder why there is a drift towards UKIP or towards the SNP or even towards complete disengagement from the political process.

Then they blame Corbyn. Corbyn, who has finally roused great numbers of dormant party members and brought hope to many who thought the economic plight they suffered was inevitable. Without Corbyn, Labour would be declaring — with the voice of Thatcher — ‘there is no alternative’.

Corbyn has launched his plan for the future and it is a plan of hope. If the PLP really want to form a government, they need to get behind this plan and promote it passionately. Owen Smith — in perhaps a moment that displayed an astonishing lack of self-awareness — spoke of a united Labour Party taking on the Tories. He was right. But it is Corbyn who has the moral standing to lead that united front. The debate last night was between a man who looked, spoke, and gestured like a politician and a man who gave the impression he could be trusted. The standing ovation given to Corbyn at the end showed that trust had been given.