How Labour can clean up Osborne's mess

The party must make national renewal its essential governing project.

George Osborne has messed the economy up. This might be a somewhat laconic summary of the latest IMF report into the state of the UK economy, but it isn’t a million miles from the truth. The overly rapid imposition of fiscal tightening has led to recession, which in turn means that borrowing is increasing, not falling. Cue ominous orchestral strings.

Yet as George Eaton argued yesterday, Osborne’s failure - and it is an abject, historic, world-class failure – has difficult political consequences. The Chancellor's failure means the next election will be fought under economically cloudy skies. The economy will probably be growing anaemically by 2015, but there will be pressure on living standards and stubbornly high unemployment. Our national debt will still be rising and the necessary return to fiscal balance will be several years off.

So the government has quietly kicked rebalancing a little longer down the road. The IMF reminds us that the government has already announced "further, unspecified consolidation in 2015-17.". That’s the £10 billion of further welfare cuts the government has "planned" for after the next election. The IMF think growth will be slower than the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) does, and deficit targets missed, which means even more "unspecified consolidation" will eventually be needed. To this gloom, the OBR adds that an aging population means return to pre-crisis levels of debt will require additional spending cuts or tax rises worth some £17 billion a year[1] just to return to the debt status quo ante.

These problems are going to land right in the lap of the next government. So what can Labour offer a nation facing weak growth, high debt and demographic cost pressures?

One reaction to the triple squeeze a Labour government would face is to deny that deficit reduction will be needed, that we can find a path to growth in the rejection of spending restraint, or "austerity-lite". In the short-term, that is absolutely the right approach. Debt is historically cheap, and rates are low because money is seeking out the safehouses of government securities. Unfortunately, Labour will not be governing in the short-term. Come 2015, while fiscal consolidation might be slowed, or even temporarily reversed, at some point it will need to be resumed – at least if we are to remain good Keynesians. So in order to create the space we need to invest for growth, we will need to bind ourselves tight to medium-term deficit reduction.

Another argument might be that Labour should support deficit reduction, but primarily through tax increases. If we were to take the current projections, we’d be looking at an immediate £10 billion in tax increases to fund welfare, plus whatever action we took on medium term debt, plus any other cuts we sought to reverse or delay. Then there’s social care, which might need another £10 billion or so. Yet as those dangerous right wingers at the Fabians have pointed out, there is little public appetite for tax rises. Gulp.

I believe neither argument is wholly convincing because neither postponing the debt reckoning nor increasing taxes to preserve services, can renew our national economy. They are responses to problems, not a search for a solution. Instead, our political focus must be directly on the need for the recovery of our national productive capacity.  Naturally, that means we can’t afford the risk of a fiscal event, or to waste money on financing extended debt levels for longer than strictly necessary. So a steady return to fiscal balance is vital. But as well as closing the existing deficit, we also have to do new things to support growth- such as a National Investment Bank, infrastructure, R&D, and education.

Unfortunately, few of these things are free[2]. It is disturbing to think that the key to Britain’s long-term growth is a plan for national renewal which will cost more of the money we already don’t have. No wonder the latest buzz phrase among left-wing wonks is "switch spend" which translates as "cut services to fund investment".

The next Labour government won’t be able to choose between higher taxes and cuts if it is to slowly reduce the deficit, deal with demographic pressures and deliver sustainable growth. Instead, it will have to do both. But how can such a programme ever be sold to an already sceptical electorate?

I believe we need to make national renewal our essential governing project. Our argument must be that national renewal only works if pursued for the long-term and alongside a politics of common sacrifice. The problem for this government is that they do not believe in restraint in any terms other than for the state. If you have wealth, or power, or privilege, restraint is for other people. Labour can offer a distinctive message. Yes, the next few years will be tough if we fight back to economic strength. But we can only do so if all parts of society contribute.

This requires that we change too. If we are to talk of a common purpose, it must demonstrate that restraint is broadly shared. If the risk for the Tories is that they are too indulgent to the wealthy few, then for the left it is that we are unable to be frank with those the trade unions represent. This strategy is risky, I freely admit. It doesn’t sit well with progressives to promise pain today but joy deferred. It will be hard to make the argument to Unison and the GMB that to support long-term growth requires short-term restraint in public service budgets.

Yet the reality is that a Labour government will face sharp constraints, that we need long term sustainable private sector growth to fund our social aims, and that future demographic pressures require more fiscal restraint, not less. That means that a future Labour government would have to make such arguments, like it or not.

Today, politics often sounds tinny and inadequate to the challenges we face.  Perhaps the key to changing that is to frankly recognise the sea of troubles we face, set a great national ambition, and argue that to achieve such may be difficult, but is also worthy. Shared sacrifice, national renewal, common purpose. Maybe it’s just me, but I can see that catching on after selfish Toryism fails.



[1]  "we calculate the additional fiscal tightening necessary from 2017-18 to return PSND to its roughly pre-crisis level of 40 per cent of GDP in 2061-62, as well as that necessary to keep it at the level we expect at the end of our medium-term forecast, namely 75 per cent of GDP, again in 2061-62. Under our central projections, the government would need to implement a permanent tax increase or spending cut of 1.1 per cent of GDP (£17 billion in today’s terms) in 2017-18 to get debt back to 40 per cent and 0.3 per cent of GDP (£5 billion in today’s terms) to have it at 75 per cent."

http://cdn.budgetresponsibility.independent.gov.uk/FSR2012WEB.pdf

P13 Para 52-54

As the OBR says, this figure only gets bigger if the government misses its debt targets for 2016-17.

 

[2]  Though Gregg McClymont’s work on pensions charges shows that not all progressive reforms cost money. The same is true of other consumer and market regulation issues, many of which, ironically enough need to be imported from that bastion of neo-liberalism – the USA.

 

A future Labour government would face tight economic constraints. Photograph: Getty Images.

Hopi Sen is a former head of campaigns at the Parliamentary Labour Party. He blogs at www.hopisen.com.

Alison McGovern
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Forget universal basic income - this is how we can include voters in economic growth

The links between economic growth of the country and that of the people, families and towns have broken. The state can fix them again. 

Economic policy is always boring, until it’s too late.

Pensions. How they are funded, who they cover, what happens if they fail. Boring. Until it was too late.

Mortgages. Who has them, who needs one, who should have one. Boring. Until it was too late.

Finance. Capital markets, their products, their structure, their risk profile. Boring. Until it was too late.

You see the point I’m making. It’s easy to look away from numbers. The data doesn’t necessarily tell us an obvious story. And then one day, a catalyst sparks an unforeseen, if, with hindsight, predictable event, and we all wonder why we didn’t see it coming.

Something similar happened with the Brexit vote. Of course, it was a perfect political storm: an overconfident Prime Minister calls a referendum that he only needs to have to pay off his right flank, safe in the knowledge that the mainstream voters and the leadership of the Labour party will carry him through. Except he forgets that there is someone more despised than even his right flank - him. 

But beneath all of that, the Brexit vote revealed a divided country. Between those who felt that Britain as it was before the referendum offered them a decent enough – if imperfect - future, and those who felt it offered them nothing of the sort. 

Could we have seen it coming? Perhaps we could. Take two graphs.

Real wages are still, today, on average below what they were in 2008, nearly a decade ago. At the point of the referendum, average wages were yet to return to the level they hit eight years earlier. The difference between real and nominal wages is inflation. People have watched prices steadily drift up while their wages have remained stubbornly flat. Not an overnight shock, but a long drawn out crisis all the same.

Vast numbers of pensioners (over 60 per cent of them) voted to leave the European Union, and pensioners incomes have not seen the same fall as incomes for the working age population (in fact they rose by 19 per cent in real terms in the last 10 years). But it is important not to overinterpret the data with hindsight. After all, there are nearly 32m British people of working age. That surely should have been enough to carry the vote, had far too many people had so little reason to back the status quo.

In the years running up to the crucial Brexit vote, the economy was, by and large, moving ahead. But in the case of the most crucial, most noticeable, economic transfer - a person’s wages - the economy was not moving ahead at all. In fact between the crash and the 2015 general election, wages largely only fell, and since then, pay has struggled to make up ground, against a picture of an otherwise ‘growing’ economy.

Worst of all - nearly 4m households in measurable (and therefore known) poverty include someone at work. Of the 17m Brexit voters, some were wealthy retired voters who always hated Brussels. But how many more simply had too little to lose, and couldn’t stand David Cameron?

The problem with all this though, and the reason we didn’t see it coming, is that no one’s life is a graph. I mean, we are all data points. But no one feels like a data point. And people are notoriously bad at providing logical, graph-like, mathematical reasons for their political judgements. "My individual wages have failed to keep pace with growth in the economy at large," said no person on no doorstep, ever. Unhappiness with what is on offer manifests itself in lots of different ways but it isn’t likely to be an analysis of the macro-economy.

We all know of course that people are much more likely to connect with politics (and politicians) emotionally. That is how we make our choices. But our emotions are informed by the facts of our life and are responses to the facts we see. So, whilst the graphs above cannot tell us all we need to know about why Remain lost, they do tell us about some facts likely to impact on the choices we make.

The challenge is to work out how we can change the trends shown on the graph, and how this in turn will affect those who lost out over the past decade. What can be done to repair the link between economic growth and economic growth for all?

This challenge is to create "inclusive growth". Or as I think of it, making sure there is a hard chain which links growth in the economy overall to the growth of wages and incomes of the many. When the country rises, so must all within it.

The hard links in the chain are what should have kept our country together. They are the rules that should have meant that the British economy doing better meant individuals, families, towns, cities all doing better too. You can see from the graphs above that the rules worked between 1997 and about 2005. Our country grew, and we all grew in capacity with it. But then the model stopped working. And 11 years later people were asked to vote for the status quo, even though the status quo was clearly failing the many.

We will never be able to see the trends until it is too late. We need rules that shape our markets, including the labour market, to achieve an outcome that people can see and feel in their pockets. Analysis of the past is only any good if it can help shape the future. 

It’s not enough to say that somehow our economy is rigged against people, as if this was one great fiddle. Rather, we should remember that policy choices have consequences. 

Now some people suggest that the correct response to falling wages, and precarious work, is some sort of universal benefit, or citizens’ income. But recent Fabian Society research demonstrated that the vast majority of people – about 80 per cent - feel positive about their work even despite the story told here about wages. So even if it were practical for government to raise taxes in order to transfer something in the region of the state pension to every person in our country, it hardly seems like it would be popular. 

If people, in general terms, actually like their work, the problem is then making sure they get paid enough and get promotions. It means recognising what the past decade has taught us: that the growth of the economy must mean economic growth for all within the economy, or else there will be consequences.

So, the question remains: what are the hard links in the chain between the economic growth of the country as a whole, and economic growth of the people, families and towns within it?

Unfortunately, this is where the boring stuff still matters. You can get paid more if you have better prospects. That means a buoyant labour market, and the skills to participate in it.

Now the government say that they are addressing the challenges in our economy by investing in infrastructure, through an industrial strategy. And along with buzzy new ideas like universal basic income (where citizens are guaranteed a certain income), everyone in politics loves announcing campaigns for new railway lines (me included). Trains are big, fast, expensive and showy. But travelling to work by train tends to be the preserve of those who already have a high-skilled job and are commuting some distance. We should worry a little more about those who get the bus to work.

Then take those who work in low-pay sectors like care, retail, hospitality, or construction. Each sector has its own challenges, but one thing that unites of all these sectors is the likelihood of people working in them to be working below their potential skill level. Hopefully our new metro mayors will be able to provide better education opportunities for those at or near the minimum wage. But what about in those areas without mayors? Do they fall even further behind? Skills transfers matter much more for future growth than a massive financial transfer like universal basic income.

And in case anyone should think that I have forgotten, with less than 15 per cent of people in the private sector represented by a trade union, it is little wonder that workers have insufficient power to command better wages. Our labour market leaves too many people on their own, without the strength of collective bargaining to get them a good deal.

Universal basic income fails for another crucial reason. It would fail for the same reason that tax credits were economically effective but open to political challenge. For most people, the part of government, of the state, that they wish to defend are the things they can see, they can touch, emotionally engage with. The hospital their child was born in, that cared for a sick parent, the school they went to, the park they played in with their grandchild. They prefer to earn their wages, and do a job they enjoy. Transfer payments from the state are always harder to defend, as the history books attest. 

So for me, truly inclusive growth means making the most of the institutions we already have – colleges of further education for example – and building new ones like universal quality childcare. Many members of our workforce are prevented from returning to work after the birth of a child, simply because of the cost of childcare. Universal free childcare would allow many more women to go back to work or have the time to gain more skills, should they want to. Moreover, good quality childcare would benefit all of our children by narrowing the attainment gap. These hard links in the chain - the links that ensure that growth in Britain involves economic growth of all of those people and places within it - are, in fact, the institutions of the state. 

These are the platforms Labour governments have built for ordinary people to stand on. But these are the very institutions under attack from current government policy. If we’re going to rebuild the chain, then the government must change tack. We need to develop new ideas and solutions and the all-party parliamentary group on inclusive growth can be a place to bring people together across the party divide. Theresa May has spoken about an economy that works for all. Now’s the time to protect the institutions that can deliver that economy and inclusive growth, before it is too late.

The APPG on Inclusive Growth's 'State of the Debate' event with the OECD, World Economic Forum, RSA and IPPR is on Tuesday 21st February at 6.30pm at Parliament. See www.inclusivegrowth.co.uk for full details.

Alison McGovern is Labour MP for Wirral South.