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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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.