'How exactly will you pay for that?' - is probably the most common question from the mainstream media this election, especially when it comes to Green Party policy. On one level this question is entirely appropriate and reasonable. On another level however, it reveals the dominance of one limited - and increasingly disputed - view of macroeconomics.
When we spent £850billion bailing out the banks, the question, 'how are you going to pay for that', was much less salient. There was a consensus at the time, that if we didn't bail out the banks, the longer term costs would be much greater. In contrast we seem to have a collective blind spot when it comes to questioning the longer term cost of cuts to social services.
Andrew Marr recently confronted David Cameron with the consequences of austerity: the death of an ex-soldier whose benefits had been cut after he missed an interview. David Cameron was reputed to have been visibly angry after the interview. Part of me hopes that Cameron was not simply angry for being questioned on this, but that a small part of him, even if he would not admit it, was angry with himself.
The death of ex-soldier, David Calpson, is however just the tip of an iceberg of unnecessary pain, suffering and mental anguish caused by Iain Duncan Smith's punitive and dysfunctional handling of the benefits system. Mental health professionals are calling for an inquiry into the impact of austerity on mental health, pointing to known links between debt, financial insecurity and negative mental health outcomes. To their credit, the Liberal Democrats have recognized the need to raise funding to deal with mental health issues, but the real tragedy is that the increased insecurity caused by the undermining of public services and workers rights is likely to cause much higher rates of mental health problems. Just as successive governments have failed to properly regulate the labeling of food to avoid greater costs to our NHS, so too short term savings in welfare are being implemented in a way that is, in my view, likely to increase costs in the longer term.
Here in Bristol we are being forced to consider the cost to a future generation of children who might have to grow up without a local library. Local Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors have been active in opposing library closures, and seem to recognize the longer term benefits of keeping libraries open - despite their support for the national cuts to local government funding - which is at best ironic, at worst, disingenuous. The future of our economy is nothing if it is not knowledge based - we need to be asking how we can invest in libraries to enable them to share knowledge in a way that is fit for the 21st century, not cutting services to make a short term saving.
In Bristol the crisis in housing has now overtaken inadequate public transport as the number one complaint of residents in the city. Natalie Bennett was (in)famously questioned on our policy to build 500,000 social homes. The more pertinent question however is how on earth we can afford not to build more social homes? Every year £9 Billion in housing benefits is paid to private landlords, and billions is given in tax relief to 'buy-to-let' landlords. By scraping buy to let tax relief, enabling councils to borrow and ending the right-to-buy we could make an investment that would pay massive dividends in the long term by providing sustainable and affordable homes for many generations to come.
The Tories continue to take the high ground in fiscal responsibility, yet have added more to the national debt in the last five years than Labour added in 13. They asked to be judged on their success in reducing the UK's debt, and have failed on their own terms. Two thirds of economists now agree that austerity is not working, whilst only 15% think it is still the right course of action. Indeed the experiment in austerity has quite clearly failed the UK, has failed Greece and has failed all across Europe.
Europe is beginning to suffer from a neoliberal economic model that the IMF and World bank has been forcing upon the developing world (particularly Africa) for the last 50 years, in which countries are forced to reduce public spending, sell off public services and reduce workers rights. Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang has quite clearly documented how this model has caused economic stagnation in the developing world, just as it is causing stagnation in Europe now.
Over the last five years however, we have had no genuine opposition to austerity from Labour. In the words of George Monbiot 'Labour has allowed the Conservatives to frame its politics' and to set the direction of Labour spending plans. The message that austerity has slowed our economic recovery has therefore not come from Labour, but from the SNP. Indeed leading economists agree with Nicola Sturgeon's claims that austerity has actually impeded our economic recovery. Many new converts to the Green Party have been surprised to find themselves to the left of Labour on this and so many issues.
The biggest deficit we are leaving to our children is not in our public finances however, but the massive costs of chaotic climate change. Natalie Bennett was the only party leader in the debates to raise this issue, reminding everyone that we have a huge collective moral obligation to future generations. The stagnation of our economy for the majority, widening inequality, and our failure to address climate change have a common solution however, we need to massively invest in energy efficiency and renewable technology. On Thursday this week, I launched a report commissioned by Molly Scott Cato (MEP) demonstrating that 113% of the energy needs of the South West could be met with renewable energy, simultaneously creating 124,000 new jobs and adding £11 Billion to the local economy. If we are to tackle climate change, we need to recognize that austerity is not the solution to our debt crisis, and that we need government investment on a scale not seen since we created the NHS after WW2 (when our debt to GDP ratio was much higher than it is now) to recharge our economy and avoid the massive long term costs of climate change.
The establishment parties often emphasize that responsible politicians need to make 'difficult decisions'. After supporting fracking, cutting subsidies for renewable energy, cutting the budget for HMRC and handling billions to private providers for NHS services - it seems to me that 'making difficult decisions' is nothing but Orwellian double speak for making the wrong decisions.
I hope the UK makes the right decision on the 7 May and there are enough Green MPs in Parliament to work with other progressive forces to end this costly experiment in austerity and put us on course to investing in a fair Green economy.
Just in case you haven't seen it the - fully costed - Green Party manifesto can be found here.