Tribune leader, 30 April 1993
The government has been wrong so often before about the imminence of Britain’s recovery from recession that it has been simple for Labour to be sceptical about this week’s gross domestic product statistics for the first quarter of 1993, particularly as most credible independent analysts agree that the recovery is, at best, tentative.
Unemployment has yet to reach its peak and consumer confidence remains low. The manufacturing base has been ravaged by years of Tory neglect and the rest of western Europe, Britain’s main export market, is in recession. A revival of consumer demand is likely to worsen the balance of payments deficit.
Meanwhile, largely because of the recession, Britain is running a giant budget deficit and, as the effects of last year’s devaluation work their way through the economy, inflation is creeping up. The government cannot let the budget deficit and inflation get out of hand but knows that an application of austerity measures to reduce them would kill any hope of sustained recovery.
All this gives Labour plenty of ammunition with which to attack the government. Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Harriet Harman and the other Labour frontbenchers with economic portfolios have set about the task with gusto. What they have not yet done, however, is explain adequately what they would do differently. Of course, there have been some steps in the right direction. Mr Brown has laid down a useful framework for policy in his speeches and his articles about the central importance of a highly skilled labour force for any country wanting to compete in the (now global) capitalist economy. And Mr Cook’s industry policy document, published earlier this month, contains an analysis of Britain’s decline that deserves for more attention than it has received.
Nevertheless, much remains to be done. For all the “supply-side” strengths of Labour’s recent thinking, the party often seems not very different from the Tories when it comes to macro-economic policies. On interest rates, exchange rates and public spending, Labour appears more or less to accept the same parameters as the government.
Hits is very much what Bryan Gould, Peter Hain and various members of the hard-left anti-Maastricht lobby have been saying – and it would be comforting for the left to believe that these critics of the leadership line have a plausible alternative programme that could easily be adopted by Labour. Unfortunately, they have not.
Their position consists, essentially, of a return to the one-nation Keynesianism of Labour’s “alternative economic strategy” of the seventies (seasoned with more or less nationalisation, according to taste). That failed last time that it was tried by a medium-sized European country (France in the early eighties) and there is no reason to believe that it would work in Britain in the late nineties.
Indeed, the flight of capital and balance of payments crisis that scuppered Francois Mitterrand’s expansionist experiment would be as nothing compared with what a future British Labour government could face were it committed to a comparable programme. In the end, the one-nation Keynesians offer only nostalgia for a world we have lost, when plucky little Britain could stand alone.
To his credit, Mr Brown has recognised this: his acceptance of the constraints within which British macro-economic policy has to operate is not capitulation but realism.
The problem is that, apart from a few hints about the need for international co-operation to secure sustainable growth, he has given little indication of how the limits on a medium-sized nation state’s ability to manage demand might be transcended. His priority now should be to articulate clearly the potential for the European Community as the means for implementing a counter-cyclical macro-economics.