It harms Labour's cause to pretend that there is no substance to the economic recovery


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The Independent Online

George Osborne, more than most chancellors, is not a personality the public readily warms to. The “austerity Chancellor” has had to take tough decisions, as anyone in his position would have had to. Whatever it claims, had Labour won the last election it too would have had to cut into public spending, while the Liberal Democrats have obviously been complicit in everything that has been done by the Treasury.

So in cutting Mr Osborne some slack, we might as well give him some credit for the claimed “hat-trick” of good economic news he was trumpeting today. For Mr Osborne is correct: GDP is growing and has been upgraded; there is resurgence in consumer confidence, and living standards are up on the last election.

True, each of those claims can be picked at. A bounceback in GDP after the longest, deepest recession in a century was long overdue; consumer confidence was reviving from rock bottom; and living standards have risen mainly because of tax cuts rather than wage increases, which remain modest. In normal times people would expect to be much better off after half a decade. Plus, in 2010, Mr Osborne promised to balance the public finances by now, and he has missed that target by some distance (though the eurozone crises provide some excuses).

Still, good news it certainly is, and Mr Osborne is entitled to make the most of it. Indeed the consumer confidence figures are in stark contrast to those in Europe and Japan, for example, and demonstrate that the UK, for the time being at least, is benefiting from a “nice” deflation. Confidence among businesses lags behind, however, and the lack of investment in UK businesses is the single biggest cause of Britain’s looming productivity crisis, badly neglected by Mr Osborne and his predecessors. Low interest rates have simply not helped investment in the real economy.

There are legitimate criticisms that can be levelled at Mr Osborne, ones that he might almost admit to, should politics permit such candour. Some of Labour’s charges, though, amount to an embarrassing refusal simply to accept the truth about the improvement in the economy, such as it is. On jobs, for example, Labour claims that they are all low-grade or on zero-hours contracts. That may have been true in the earlier part of the Great Recession, but not so much recently. What’s more, pay restraint through the period of recession helped the UK hang on to more jobs and helped companies retain more skilled workers than in most rival advanced economies, where the economic pain was borne much less evenly – a continuing comfortable lifestyle for middle class professionals paid for, in effect, by a surge in unemployment among the socially disadvantaged. That was what happened in France under President Hollande, publicly admired by Ed Miliband. 

Purely on the basis of the first day’s campaigning on the economy, Labour suffers from the simple problem of overstating its criticism and, thus, sounding incredible in the ears of voters who can see and feel the recent economic improvement with their own eyes and in their own wallets. Yes, it is modest, and the electorate realise that too. They are also, probably, shrewd enough to know that David Cameron’s claims that an Ed Miliband government would represent “hell” and lead to “chaos” is also rather silly and overdone. Other things being equal, in a world where people distrust politicians instinctively, the ones who make the more modest, realistic claims are the ones who will get that little bit more of a hearing.