Thursday, 24 March 2011

LEAP Chair John McDonnell MP speaks in Budget debate


John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I listened to the Budget debate yesterday as well as today, and I want to take up some of the points raised in it. I clearly come from a different economic school from the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond)—and I probably come from a different one from his erstwhile colleague the shadow Chancellor as well!

The premise of the debate so far has been that as a result of profligate public expenditure by the last Government, we have an economic crisis on our hands. The conclusion is that we can solve the deficit largely by cutting public expenditure. My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), who is no longer in his place, referred to various Treasury charts, and I have to say that one that was published a short while ago demonstrates that the profligate expenditure argument is simply not true.

Let us consider the recent Treasury chart about public spending under the last Government and previous Governments as a percentage of gross domestic product. It shows that public expenditure under the last Government was, in fact, less than it was at the height of Thatcherism and under John Major’s period in office. I shall circulate this chart to Members. I know this is true because for many of the years the last Labour Government were in office, I was attacking them for not spending enough and for poor expenditure. I fully agree with the criticisms made of the private finance initiative; I opposed every PFI scheme that was proposed.

If we look at the chart to find out when expenditure as a proportion of gross domestic product rose dramatically, we discover that it was, as the shadow Chancellor said, only when the economic crisis hit and we had to pump out the quantitative easing into the economy. In my view, the deficit occurred as a result of the failure to match expenditure with tax justice. We had large levels of tax evasion and avoidance and, in addition, we failed to develop a whole range of other tax bases within the economy. Genuine criticisms can be made of over-dependence on the financial sector and the failure to develop the manufacturing sector during that period.

What do we do now? It is not all about cutting expenditure. In yesterday’s debate, reference was made to the crisis of the 1930s and the lessons that can be learned from it. It is worth Members returning to J.K. Galbraith, who I believe wrote the best book on the crisis, The Great Crash 1929. What Galbraith says is that although economic structures can be put in place, what will defend us most against a repeat of the crisis is memory. We seem to forget that the cause of that crisis was the cause of this crisis—speculation by the banks and other speculators and, yes, a Government who failed to regulate. I have to say, however, that when a number of Members called for bank regulation in this House, there was an element of quietude on all sides. I remember fighting for four years, in almost a solitary capacity, to secure the passage of the City of London (Ward Elections) Bill at a time when we were pressing for regulation.

One of the lessons of the 1930s is that the one thing we should not do in a recession is cut public expenditure, because that will turn a recession into a depression. However, it is exactly what the Government seem to be doing. At present 2.5 million people are unemployed, 1 million young people are unemployed, according to recent statistics 1.7 million people are in involuntary part-time employment, and the £80 billion cuts proposed by the Government will make at least another 1.2 million people unemployed.

What I am really anxious about, however, and what we should all be anxious about, are the cuts in capital expenditure. We are told that there will be a 4% cut next year and a 6% cut in the year after that, and that local government capital expenditure is to be cut by 30%—possibly more, according to the Red Book. I believe that if that element of demand is removed from the economy, we will experience either a deflationary spiral or the worst of all worlds, stagflation: increasing inflation along with stagnation in the real economy. I do not believe that there will be a double dip. My fear is that we will become like Japan, where asset values are falling, and will scrape along the bottom of economic activity for perhaps a decade.

People ask what the alternative is. I have mentioned the lessons of the 1930s, and Keynes’s name has been bandied about many times today. It is true that Keynes concentrated on the bond market, but one of the main lessons to be learned from him is that the key issue is unemployment. I think we should be declaring, across parties, that our objective must be the return of full employment, which appears no longer to be cited as a policy objective. As has already been pointed out, the most effective way of restoring investment is through capital investment—the development of capital programmes in housing, renewable energy and transport. I ask Members to look at the green new deal and to examine the One Million Climate Jobs booklet produced by trade unions including the Public and Commercial Services Union, which sets out a capital investment programme that could get people back to work.

How would that be paid for? Let me list just a few short-term measures. I am very pleased that windfall taxes have come back into fashion, and I commend the Government for that, but I do not think that the windfall taxes on the banks go nearly far enough. The lending rates on personal loans in particular are exploitative and extortionate in the markets. I also think that if we are to consider organisations that have profiteered during the recession, we should consider the supermarkets. Commodity inflation is about 3%, but they have increased prices by 6% and above, and they have been profiteering for a number of years.

I think that a windfall tax on energy is appropriate. The current profits of British Gas average 24%, and Ofgem has reported an average profit margin of 38% per customer since last November. That is profiteering during a recession. Some economists have suggested that a windfall tax in those three areas would produce up to £10 billion to get people back to work.

Let me make clear, however, as I did under the last Government, what should happen in the longer term if we are to avoid future deficits. Yes, it is about careful expenditure and it is about having confidence in local and regional decision making, but it is also about achieving a fair and just tax system which will fund our expenditure. First, we must tackle tax evasion and avoidance. What has been done about that by past Governments and by the present Government is trivial. According to Richard Murphy and John Christensen of the Tax Justice Network, £150 billion a year is potentially available to us. Secondly, we need a financial transaction tax. We have been talking about a Robin Hood tax for too long, and we should now be implementing it. Thirdly, I think we should deal with land speculation. I believe that now is the time for land value taxation. If we tax the wealth in land, we will encourage development rather than preventing it.

On Saturday, there is to be a 'march for the alternative'. I expect at least half a million people to march in the streets against the cuts, and I want them to march for a just alternative. I believe that one of the alternatives they will expect us to implement in the House is a fair taxation system allowing investment in public services so that we can all share in that wealth.

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