Would Labour borrow a trillion pounds?

2 November 2018
What was claimed

Labour would borrow one trillion to cover their promises.

Our verdict

The original claim is actually that Labour would spend (not borrow) a trillion pounds to cover their manifesto commitments. The figure hasn't been confirmed, and we don't know what time period it covers, and whether it refers to spending increases compared to now, or total spending.

“Labour would borrow one trillion to cover their promises,”

Giles Watling MP, 1 November 2018.

“That’s absolute nonsense,”

Andy McDonald MP, 1 November 2018.

This claim has a fairly roundabout origin: it was originally that Labour would spend, not borrow, one trillion pounds. It originates from reports of Labour Party insiders saying that there were significant spending commitments in its last manifesto that weren’t fully costed.

But the meaning of the figure is ambiguous. We don’t know if the claim refers to a trillion pounds of spending in total (the government currently spends around £840 billion a year), or a trillion pounds of additional spending over an undetermined number of years.

After Theresa May made the claim that Labour’s spending would cost a trillion pounds (one thousand billion) in her Conservative Party conference speech this year, the academic Philip Cowley suggested the claim might well be based on a finding in his latest book. (The book is the most recent installment of a well-respected series of academic works analysing each general election since World War II.)

His book reports that some Labour insiders said that their “fully costed” 2017 manifesto actually had significant unaccounted spending (Professor Cowley quotes one anonymous Labour staffer as saying “It didn’t add up!”).

The manifesto and funding plan detailed around £49 billion of extra annual spending to be funded through higher taxes. There was also a commitment to set up a £250 billion infrastructure fund over ten years. Professor Cowley wasn’t trying to get to the bottom of Labour’s spending figures: the context for the discussion is the Conservative party’s choice not to publish their own costings, leaving them less able to attack Labour’s manifesto, which is described by a Labour figure as a “huge mistake”.

Professor Cowley reports one Labour insider as saying that the Conservatives could have credibly claimed, as an attack line during the election, that there was one trillion pounds of spending commitments in Labour’s manifesto, if they had scrutinised Labour’s costings more. “Such a claim would have involved the Conservatives being a bit imaginative, but it would have been – our source felt – at least plausible for them to have done so” he wrote for the New Statesman.

That’s not quite the same thing as Labour’s manifesto definitely costing £1 trillion, or even Labour sources believing that’s what it cost (and, as mentioned earlier, we don’t know whether this refers to total spending or increased spending). But the book does suggest that Labour staffers believed they were committed to more spending than their manifesto claimed.

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