The Tory (and Labour) obsession with deficits and cuts

The new Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) has published its forecast.

The row over cuts, deficits and economic growth continues. From the BBC:

The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) predicts the economy will expand 2.6 per cent in 2011, down from the 3 per cent to 3.5 per cent estimate given in Labour's last Budget.

The lower figure will likely increase the impetus of the coalition government to cut public spending, as lower growth means fewer tax revenues.

Yet the OBR also says the deficit and debt will not be as bad as forecast.

It predicts that the UK's public deficit will fall, down to 10.5 per cent of GDP in the 2010-11 financial year, from the 11.1 per cent estimated by Labour.

For overall net government debt -- the sum of all borrowing -- the OBR estimates this will decline to 62.2 per cent of GDP in 2010-11 from the previous estimate of 63.6 per cent.

As the BBC's Paul Mason notes on his blog (hat-tip: Left Foot Forward):

There is only a 0.3 per cent of GDP difference (maybe 5bn) between Darling's structural deficit forecast and Budd's. This means there is no prima-facie ammo in the Budd Report for a significant tightening in order to eliminate "the bulk of the structural deficit".

Yet the "deficit hysteria" that I highlighted in my NS column this week continues unabated:

We are entering, as promised, the age of austerity. And the nation's finest minds are tormented by deficit hysteria. From the corridors of Whitehall to the studios of the BBC, the debt delusion -- that Britain is bust, bankrupt, broke -- reigns supreme.

Across the spectrum, from right to left to wherever the Liberal Democrats might be these days, politicians and policymakers mouth the mantra of "Cuts, cuts, cuts". "Swingeing", one of the oddest words in the English language, seems to have become a permanent addition to the political and media lexicon.

Larry Elliott has a brilliant but depressing piece in the Guardian today ("The lunatics are back in charge of the economy and they want cuts, cuts, cuts"), in which he reminds us of how FDR made the mistake of heeding the advice of the "sound money" economists in his administration and cut spending in 1937, thereby tipping the fragile US economy back into recession.

He also refers the reader to a new study by the economist Charles Dumas, of Lombard Street Research:

Dumas notes: "If some countries deflate their economies in an attempt to cut their government deficits, other countries will have a larger deficit -- and even the deflating countries will be partially frustrated in their endeavours. Why? Because they will induce a renewed recession that will hammer tax revenue and enforce greater relief spending." The result, he warns, "will almost certainly be renewed European recession, quite possibly a prolonged depression".

Meanwhile, Ed Balls and Alastair Darling are locked in a public spat over Labour's fiscal record in office and the latter's refusal to rule out a rise in VAT in the run-up to the election. I'm with Balls on this one. And, in my humble view, the former chancellor of the Exchequer too easily accepted the narrow, debt-obsessed parameters of the deficit hawks inside the Treasury, and in the commentariat and the financial markets. Labour's pledge to halve the deficit in four years was unnecessary and arbitary (why not three? or five?), and meant that the party was -- still is -- unable to make a credible or coherent case for Keynesian counter-cyclical spending.

Then there are those New Labour figure who seem to fetishise deficit reduction, cuts and balanced budgets. Andrew Adonis, the former transport secretary and one of the cleverest ministers to serve under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, wrote in yesterday's Sunday Times:

Credibility on deficit reduction after 2011 will be vital for Labour's new leader if he (or she) seriously aspires to become prime minister.

And John Rentoul, the Independent on Sunday's chief political commentator and self-confessed "ultra-Blairite", wrote in his paper yesterday:

The long campaign, with the winner to be announced at the start of the Labour conference in September, is good for the party. By the end of the process the candidates might have got down to the real issue, which is what Labour can say about the vast fiscal deficit with which it saddled the country.

The last bit of that last sentence reads almost as if Rentoul had lifted it wholesale from a Tory press release. It is nonsense, of course -- the bankers, not the Brown government, "saddled" the country with a "vast fiscal deficit".

Thankfully, the preferred Labour leadership candidate of both Adonis and Rentoul, the former foreign secretary David Miliband, is taking a more social-democratic approach, arguing at a packed Compass conference on Saturday that Labour has to make the case that "deficits are not immoral". The elder Miliband also hailed the columns -- in this magazine! -- of Professor David "Danny" Blanchflower, who has consistently and cogently argued against premature and dangerous cuts in public spending since he joined the New Statesman in September 2009.

In fact, here's Danny, writing in the Sunday Mirror yesterday, specifically on the subject of George "Slasher" Osborne's forthcoming emergency Budget and the associated "cuts":

"It will do terrible and probably irreversible damage to the British economy. I am now 100 per cent certain these actions will push us into double-dip recession."

I do hope Danny, Larry and I are wrong and, for the sake of this country, that the Osbornes and Rentouls are right. But the lessons of history, as Larry Elliott points out, don't bode well for the UK economy.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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The future of policing is still at risk even after George Osborne's U-Turn

The police have avoided the worst, but crime is changing and they cannot stand still. 

We will have to wait for the unofficial briefings and the ministerial memoirs to understand what role the tragic events in Paris had on the Chancellor’s decision to sustain the police budget in cash terms and increase it overall by the end of the parliament.  Higher projected tax revenues gave the Chancellor a surprising degree of fiscal flexibility, but the atrocities in Paris certainly pushed questions of policing and security to the top of the political agenda. For a police service expecting anything from a 20 to a 30 per cent cut in funding, fears reinforced by the apparent hard line the Chancellor took over the weekend, this reprieve is an almighty relief.  

So, what was announced?  The overall police budget will be protected in real terms (£900 million more in cash terms) up to 2019/20 with the following important caveats.  First, central government grant to forces will be reduced in cash terms by 2019/20, but forces will be able to bid into a new transformation fund designed to finance moves such as greater collaboration between forces.  In other words there is a cash frozen budget (given important assumptions about council tax) eaten away by inflation and therefore requiring further efficiencies and service redesign.

Second, the flat cash budget for forces assumes increases in the police element of the council tax. Here, there is an interesting new flexibility for Police and Crime Commissioners.  One interpretation is that instead of precept increases being capped at 2%, they will be capped at £12 million, although we need further detail to be certain.  This may mean that forces which currently raise relatively small cash amounts from their precept will be able to raise considerably more if Police and Crime Commissioners have the courage to put up taxes.  

With those caveats, however, this is clearly a much better deal for policing than most commentators (myself included) predicted.  There will be less pressure to reduce officer numbers. Neighbourhood policing, previously under real threat, is likely to remain an important component of the policing model in England and Wales.  This is good news.

However, the police service should not use this financial reprieve as an excuse to duck important reforms.  The reforms that the police have already planned should continue, with any savings reinvested in an improved and more effective service.

It would be a retrograde step for candidates in the 2016 PCC elections to start pledging (as I am certain many will) to ‘protect officer numbers’.  We still need to rebalance the police workforce.   We need more staff with the kind of digital skills required to tackle cybercrime.  We need more crime analysts to help deploy police resources more effectively.  Blanket commitments to maintain officer numbers will get in the way of important reforms.

The argument for inter-force collaboration and, indeed, force mergers does not go away. The new top sliced transformation fund is designed in part to facilitate collaboration, but the fact remains that a 43 force structure no longer makes sense in operational or financial terms.

The police still have to adapt to a changing world. Falling levels of traditional crime and the explosion in online crime, particularly fraud and hacking, means we need an entirely different kind of police service.  Many of the pressures the police experience from non-crime demand will not go away. Big cuts to local government funding and the wider criminal justice system mean we need to reorganise the public service frontline to deal with problems such as high reoffending rates, child safeguarding and rising levels of mental illness.

Before yesterday I thought policing faced an existential moment and I stand by that. While the service has now secured significant financial breathing space, it still needs to adapt to an increasingly complex world. 

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation