The Labour Party Conference starts tomorrow and on its eve, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell gave an interview to the Guardian in which he committed Labour to signing up to George Osborne’s “Fiscal Charter”, which commits the government to running a surplus by 2019-2020 and beyond in ‘normal times’. In effect, the fiscal charter is meaningless because governments don’t have total control over either their spending or the amount of tax they collect, so the government’s budget balance is largely dependent on factors outside its control. That said, it was a ‘clever trick’ designed by George Osborne to trap Labour. I guess they were supposed to reject it on the perfectly reasonable grounds that it’s economically illiterate, after which Osborne and co. could paint Labour as ‘fiscally irresponsible’.
McDonnell’s decision then is a tactical one. One would hope he realises the fiscal compact is nonsense, but he has decided for whatever reason to go along with the charade. In doing so he is like a sports captain who agrees that his team will play all their games away from home. It doesn’t mean you won’t win the league, but it does make your task a lot more difficult. McDonnell is clear that committing to ‘live within our means’ does not mean a continuation of austerity for the poor, but rather a shift of the burden onto those on higher incomes.
Playing on the away team’s turf in this context means you must cost every policy along the lines of “We will pay for x by raising tax on y or cutting spending on z”. You also need to get organisations like the Institute of Fiscal Studies to mark your homework and say “yes the sums add up”. If your plans include raising taxes on the rich, there will be no shortage of people queuing up to tell you apocalyptic consequences will follow as a mass exodus of ‘wealth creators’ ensues. Labour should be ready for this. They’ll also be attacked along the lines of their plans not being believable. “You can’t trust Labour” etc etc.
The alternative for Corbyn’s Labour would have been to bring the Tories onto their home turf. They started to do that, even getting the term “Corbynomics” coined. Some of the ideas within Corbynomics – PQE in particular – took a look of flak and they now seem to have backed away from them somewhat. To me though, they had sparked quite a bit of interest in academia and they could have used that as a launch pad to start to talk about the economy in new and much more interesting ways. It would still have been tough, but it would have been in keeping with Corbyn’s “new politics” vibe.
So now they are playing on the Tories home turf instead of their own, can they still win? It’s not impossible, but it makes anything they propose open to the same old attacks. If I had to guess, I would think Corbyn and co. realise they will face the constant threat of a coup from now and for the next five years, so are trying to head that off by appeasing some in the party. There’s an idea that what you say in opposition and then what you do when in power don’t have to bear too much similarity to each other – Osborne is keenly aware of this – but whether McDonnell’s tactics are wise here, I’m not so sure.