The chancellor, Philip Hammond, has defended the “market economy”, saying it has brought people out of poverty.
In media interviews and his speech to Conservative conference, Mr Hammond repeatedly accused the Labour Party of posing a threat to this economic model. The chancellor even appeared to compare Labour’s policies to countries like North Korea and Venezuela.
But do his claims pass the FactCheck test?
“Since 1979, when Britain turned its back on the policies of Corbyn and McDonnell revival show this week, living standards in this country have doubled.”
The chancellor is right that living standards have doubled since Margaret Thatcher became prime minister in 1979.
But he’s wrong to suggest that this date marked a turning point, with an increased rate of improvement. In reality, it has now slumped.
This graph from the IFS provides the official measure of living standards, dating back to 1961. It shows there was no significant change in living standards after 1979.
Living standards remained on roughly the same trajectory all the way up until the financial crash of 2008.
Since then, under the Conservatives, living standards have failed to catch up with the pre-recession trend. The IFS described the growth in average income as “very weak”, post-recession.
This is particularly true for certain demographics. Since the crash, median income has actually fallen by 4 per cent among people aged 22-30.
“It’s an argument between nostalgic idealism on Corbyn’s part and pragmatism on our part … Every country except North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba and Zimbabwe has adopted that system. What he’s offering them is an illusion, a pretence.”
Mr Hammond has made this comparison several times in media interviews, as well as in his speech to the Conservative Party conference.
The idea that Labour’s policies are anything like the brutal system imposed by the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, is at best extremely far-fetched.
The point Mr Hammond seems to be making is that increased state ownership and control doesn’t work. This debate is at the heart of the historical divide between Labour and the Conservatives, but – whatever your opinion – there seems little grounds to compare Labour’s policies to those of authoritarian regimes.
It is true that these countries exert high levels of state control; and it is also true that Mr Corbyn’s agenda would see a bigger, more active state in the UK. But the two things are on a completely different scale.
The Index of Economic Freedom places Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea at the very bottom of its 2017 ranking – at 178, 179 and 180, compared to the UK’s 12th place. Zimbabwe, meanwhile, is ranked at 175.
In these countries, the governments have exerted almost total control over the the economy and their financial situations are extreme. For instance, the Index says there is “no effective tax system” in North Korea and “the government commands almost every part of the economy”. People in Venezuela “enjoy few civil liberties and little economic freedom,” it says, while “only limited private economic activity is permitted” in Cuba.
By contrast, many of the key policy pledges in Labour’s election manifesto are already in place in numerous modern western democracies. These include free tuition fees, nationalised railways, higher corporation tax and rent controls.
Whether that means they will work is another matter. Indeed, we have looked into the issues around tuition fees, rent controls and railway nationalisation. But it is misleading to suggest Mr Corbyn’s economic policies are similar to those in countries like North Korea or Cuba.
“[The Labour Party] openly proclaim their ambition to demolish our successful modern market economy and replace with a back-to-the-future socialist fantasy.”
The Conservatives have long claimed that Labour can’t be trusted with the economy, but Mr Hammond’s specific claim here is that the party has a policy to replace the UK’s “market economy”.
In other words, he is accusing Mr Corbyn of completely opposing free market capitalism.
We looked through Labour’s election manifesto and Mr Corbyn’s conference speech to see what the chancellor might be referring to here. The phrase “market economy” does not actually appear in the manifesto at all, but the Labour leader did talk about “restructuring our economy” in his recent speech.
It is “time that we developed a new model of economic management to replace the failed dogmas of neo-liberalism’,” Mr Corbyn said. But opposing neo-liberalism (which is associated with freer markets and deregulation) does not, in itself, mean that Mr Corbyn is opposed to market economics – merely that he is against that particular form of it.
He continued: “Labour is looking not just to repair the damage done by austerity but to transform our economy with a new and dynamic role for the public sector particularly where the private sector has evidently failed.”
It is clear from this that Mr Corbyn wants to reform the government’s economic policy. But he makes no mention of scrapping “market economics,” but instead simply suggests there should be a bigger role for the public sector.
Indeed, the Conservative Party itself does not believe in a completely unrestricted free market – a belief which was spelled out in its manifesto.
“We do not believe in untrammelled free markets,” it said, adding that the government could make “consumer markets work more fairly”.
“Markets need rules and these rules need to be updated to reflect our changing economy.”
It is true that Labour wants more regulation and state ownership than the Conservatives – such as the party’s policy of railway nationalisation. But we cannot find evidence to support Mr Hammond’s claim that the party has an overarching opposition to “market economics” in its entirety.