Learning the right lessons from Labour's economic record

Neither Labour nor the Coalition is willing to ask why Britain's tax base was so fragile.

You might think the one thing the world doesn't need right now is yet another instant history about the Labour years. But here one comes -- this time, though, with a difference. The authors certainly won't be dining out on the royalties and there's no insider gossip or "he said, she said" revelations about rows in Downing St. Which is perhaps one reason why it's worth reading; it says something serious about what did and didn't happen to economic performance during the Labour years.

It is authored by John Van Reenen from the LSE -- one of Britain's leading economists, and something of a guru on productivity and growth; together with Dan Corry, a seasoned and respected economic advisor from the former Labour government, and someone not averse to being contrary and defying the conventional view of the day.

Their central argument is that the 2.8 per cent a year productivity growth achieved between 1997 and the start of the 2008 recession was impressive in both historical and international terms; rooted in substantive improvements in a number of sectors, rather than relying on the frothy gains from financial services; and arose in part due to policy choices -- particularly investment in research and science, strong competition policy, expansion of higher education and gains in skills. Their argument is as unfashionable as it is empirically substantiated.

Above all it is an attempt to rebalance the current economic debate about the Labour years, a first (and no doubt doomed) effort at taking on those who assert that there was little more to the Labour era than an attempt to surf the wave of public and private debt over which it presided. This puts the authors at odds with the swelling ranks on left and right who wish to portray Labour's economic strategy as little more than a Faustian pact with the City: light regulation in return for growing tax-revenues. The report, of course, concedes financial regulation was a failure, but contends that wider economic policy made a real and positive difference to a range of sectors -- a point that is currently in danger of being completely over-looked.

Nor do the authors just make an argument about the past -- they also seek to pick a fight about the future. Entering the fray of the current economic debate, they refute the "supply-side pessimists" who assert there is no scope for any further stimulus on the basis that the productive potential of the economy has already fallen (which if true would mean that further expansionary policy would be counter-productive). In contrast, the LSE report contends there is plenty of spare capacity, it just requires some form of Plan B to ensure it is utilised. In truth, however, the authors are most interested in advocating a Plan V, as they term it, for long term growth involving a more muscular and far-sighted industrial policy.

For all the cogency of their arguments on productivity -- and let's hope someone in Whitehall is taking note about the insights offered about the real sources of growth -- there are some puzzling omissions and assertions. Little is said about the UK's ongoing trade imbalances. There is no investigation of the weakening link between GDP growth and the gains going to low-to-middle income Britain, and the associated wage stagnation that took hold in the years preceding the recession -- a phenomena that Labour in office failed to grasp. When you reach the end of the report you don't have much of a sense of the policy agenda that would lift the prospects of the millions of low and modestly paid workers employed in Britain's vast low-skill, low-productivity sectors. The authors, like so many others, focus their attention on what can be done to improve the industrial vanguard, rather than the laggards.

And when it comes to the record on public finances, they choose to pin-point blame on Labour's record on overall public debt, saying it got too high pre-recession. This seems like an odd argument to select given that the UK's debt was relatively low compared to others. A better target would have been Labour's projections for tax receipts -- together with the wisdom of running modest deficits in the middle of the last decade, in a period of steady growth when modest surpluses would have been more prudent.

But even this criticism is dwarfed by the real argument which neither Labour nor the Coalition wants to make as it doesn't fit their favoured narratives -- which is to ask why Britain's tax base was so fragile, crumbling so dramatically, during the recent recession in a way that those in other countries didn't. Indeed, after several years of intense focus on the need to "stress test" banks to ensure their balance sheets could stand up to future financial shocks, it is remarkable that there is no equivalent debate about the sort of tax-base the modern British state needs if it is to better withstand global turbulence in the decades ahead (see this for an exception). Only when this issue is properly aired and addressed will we know that Labour, along with the Coalition, are intent on having a strategic discussion about Britain's long-term fiscal future.

Decades will pass before a full and fair account of Labour's economic record is formed. For now we need to recognise that, love them or loathe them, instant histories matter in politics: they frame today's media coverage and tomorrow's policy decisions. Here, unusually, is one that merits a wider readership than it will get.

Gavin Kelly is a former adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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