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Economy and Jobs

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:21 pm on 20th January 2020.

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Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer 4:21 pm, 20th January 2020

Again, Labour undertook work to look at exactly that. We looked at the regional impacts and at how tax breaks are distributed unequally around the country. There is an important and exciting piece of work to be done, and some of those issues were considered by the Kerslake review in 2017. There will be some element of consensus on how we can direct future investment, and we can build upon that in the long term, because if anything comes out of the lessons of the past 10 years, it is that we need a longer schedule than just a five-year parliamentary process for capital investment of that scale.

Returning to fiscal rules, the Government have now advocated a fiscal rule that largely follows Labour’s advice, but it is this Government’s third or fourth fiscal rule—I have lost count. Some of them have been adhered to—no, actually, looking back at it, none of them have actually been adhered to, which largely defeats the object of having fiscal rules. It will be interesting to see how long this one lasts and how far it is achieved. The problem is that, even if they use all the headroom that their new fiscal rule allows, they are only paying lip service to the need to invest at scale and for the long term. If we are to tackle the issues of poverty, regional inequality and, yes, climate change, the amount of new investment mooted so far by the Chancellor is nowhere near the scale needed to address the dilapidation of our infrastructure outside London, and it is certainly not at the scale needed if we are to tackle climate change. From what we have heard so far, the maximum amount of increased investment talked about by the Chancellor is less than today’s estimate of the cost of High Speed 2.

The Chancellor’s idea in his Financial Times interview, of splitting the Treasury and sending some of its officials to work in satellite offices outside London, is a pale imitation of Labour’s plans not just for regional offices but to move whole sections of the Treasury to the north, to move the Bank of England to Birmingham and, similarly, to locate a national investment bank outside London. If the Government are going to plagiarise Labour’s policies, they at least have a duty to do so competently.

What all these things have in common is a failure to tackle the root causes of the problems to which the Government pay lip service: the grotesque levels of inequality in income and wealth in our society; the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few; the ownership of the economy by an elite, with the vast majority of people locked out of decision making and having no say on how the economy works or on who it works for; and an economy increasingly serving the few, not the many. There is no sign that the Government recognise the root causes of the crisis we face, whether social or environmental—at least, there is no sign of them doing anything about it.

Of course, all these investment proposals will count for very little if the Government fail to secure a post-Brexit trade deal with our EU partners that protects jobs. On that score, it is hardly surprising that businesses’ fears rose when the Chancellor, in his weekend interview, cavalierly threatened to throw our manufacturing sector under a bus, as he rejected the calls from business for alignment with the EU to ensure his own Government’s long-standing promise of frictionless trade. He casually said:

“There will be an impact on business one way or the other, some will benefit, some won’t.”

Let us be clear that if frictionless trade is not achieved in a future trade deal or, worse, if there is no deal, the bulk of our manufacturing sector, including cars, aerospace, pharmaceuticals and food and drink, will be in the “some won’t” category. One recent estimate identified that, in the past decade, we have already lost 600,000 manufacturing jobs.

Today, business leaders and unions have combined to warn the Chancellor that his promise to split from the EU will cost billions and damage UK manufacturing. Bizarrely, he blames the manufacturing companies for not having already prepared for any regulatory divergence coming out of any future trade deal, when no one knows what the deal or the rules will be. There is an element of Samuel Beckett or Kafka here, I am not sure which.

We hear that the Chancellor is the only Minister to be secure in his job ahead of the possible “night of the long knives” reshuffle in February.