Today’s exchanges at PMQs sounded fairly hackneyed and well-worn. Ed Miliband chose to ask about the economy, and the usual argument took place – the Labour leader accused the coalition of stifling growth, the prime minister said it was all Labour’s fault for borrowing too much.
But Miliband did give one revealing answer during the debate. The Labour leader pointed out:
[Cameron] is borrowing £212bn more than he promised.
To which the prime minister replied with the question:
If he thinks borrowing is a problem, why does he want to borrow more?
It was an excellent comeback, getting to the heart of Labour’s problem on the economy – how would borrowing more help bring borrowing down? Rather than deny that the Labour plans would result in higher borrowing, Miliband replied:
He is borrowing for failure, that’s the reality.
This was met with instant jeers from the Tory benches, who replied that the failure had been Labour’s.
But beyond the immediate point-scoring, the answer highlighted exactly the case Miliband and Ed Balls have to make if they are to regain trust on the economy. They have to be able to persuade people that their form of higher borrowing is different to the government’s form of higher borrowing.
Labour may have a case. If Balls is right, borrowing money to avoid some of the government cuts will result in higher growth, which will lead to lower benefits claims. Roughly the same amount of money is spent, but on different things and with higher growth. Even if the money is used to put into the welfare system (Labour has opposed many of the government’s welfare changes), the opposition would argue that that will pay for higher payments to fewer people under their model economy.
The real difference between the Tory and Labour model, therefore, is not about borrowing and spending, it is about growth and living standards. Miliband would do better to keep the argument there, rather than getting into complex debates about what constitutes good and bad borrowing.