The Tories are the biggest government borrowers, and have been since 1946

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It is often suggested that Labour is profligate and the Toriescare the naturally ‘safe pair of hands’ when it comes to running the economy. The Tories, it is presumed, do not borrow as much as Labour. This is a hypothesis I have tested before. I thought it time to update to to the end of the 2019/20 financial year.

The analysis that follows is based on borrowing, as reported by the House of Commons Linbrary and other data supplied by the Office for Budget Responsibility.

The government in office was decided by who was at the end of a financial year.

I then calculated the total net borrowing in Labour and Conservative years and averaged them by the number of years in office. All figures are stated billions of pounds in all the tables that follow and in this case are in original values i.e. in the prices of the periods when they actually occurred:

The Conservatives borrowed more, not just absolutely (which is unsurprising as they had more years in office), but on average.

This though, is a bit unfair: the value of money changes over time. So I restated all borrowing in 2019 prices to eliminate the bias this gives rise to. This resulted in the following table:

In current prices the Conservatives still borrowed more (much more) overall, and on average, by a long way.

So then I speculated that this may be distorted by events since 2008. That is what the Conservatives would claim, after all: they would say that they have spent six years clearing up Labour's mess. So I took those years out of account and looked at the first 62 years of the sample. First I did this in original prices:

It looked like their claim might stack. So I did it again in 2019 prices:

The Conservatives borrowed more, after all, although it was a close run thing.

Then I speculated that this might be because Labour are good Keynesians: maybe they repaid national debt more often than the Conservatives. Or, to put it another way, they actually repaired the roof when the sun was shining. This is the data in terms of number of years:

Labour do walk the talk: they repay national debt much more often in absolute and percentage terms than the Conservatives. In fact, one in four Labour years saw debt repaid. That was true in less than one in ten Conservative years.

But maybe the Conservatives repaid more. I checked that. This is the data in both original and 2014 prices:

Labour not only repaid more often, it turns out: it also repaid much more in total and on average (not shown) during each year when repayment was made.

So what do we learn? Two essential things, I suggest.

First, Labour borrows less than the Conservatives. The data shows that.

And second, Labour has always repaid debt more often than the Conservatives, and has always repaid more debt, on average.

The trend does not vary however you do the data. I have tried time lagging it for example: it makes no difference.

Or, to put it another way, the Conservatives are the party of high UK borrowing and low debt repayment contrary to all popular belief.

For those interested, this is the overall summary table: the pattern in the right hand column is really quite surprising:

Data sources

The basic data on borrowing came from the House of Commons Library. This data is updated over time: figures will differ from earlier versions of this blog.

All other data comes from the Office for Budget Responsibility