With hindsight, Cable's deficit reduction plan looks better than Osborne's

Osborne's Plan A required the Chancellor to be lucky - and this Chancellor has not been lucky.

This year I am conducting a little experiment. I have two sealed envelopes in my office drawer. In one is a set of economic predictions made by astrologers at the start of the year; in the other a set of similar predictions made by ordinary journalists with no economic background. At the end of the year I intend to compare such random guessing with heavyweight economic soothsayers such as the Office of Budget Responsibility, the Bank of England, OECD, IFS and any economic think tank bold enough to make medium-term economic predictions on the nation's growth, employment, inflation, and so forth.

My money frankly is on the astrologers. The recent record of medium-term economic forecasting is lamentable - even if we ignore the unpredicted banking crash. What success we have seen amounts to little more than the suggestion that things will move in the direction they seem to be moving.

Now, I do not know if George Osborne trusted too much the entrail examining of economic experts, some of whom are now saying that he shouldn't have done exactly what they hitherto urged him to do. Nor can we be as sure as Ed Balls that the government went "too far, too fast" - particularly as Ed never got as far as telling anyone "how far or how fast" a government should go.

What we all can agree on, though, is that things are not going to plan. Yes, jobs are being created in the private sector, unemployment is not moving upwards, the deficit is down, our export markets are engaging with the emerging economies, inflation is low and our credit good.

However, friend and foe alike acknowledge that the plan hinges on economic growth and there's little positive news yet on that.

I write this as someone who has voted in Parliament for every bit of the Chancellor's strategy and bought into its broad objectives. Government MPs cannot meaningfully adopt an a la carte approach to Budgets. I did not know if it would achieve all its major objectives but I certainly did not know it would not. I do not claim to know how crucial events in the EU have been in derailing that strategy.

What I entirely reasonably claim is that George's plan conceived before the 2010 election and implemented after it was bolder and potentially riskier than that advocated by Vince Cable and the Lib Dem Treasury team. Retrospectively and with all benefits of hindsight, slowing a little the pace of deficit of reduction to better protect economically-useful capital expenditure as suggested by Vince looks as though it might have been a better bet.

It is not that Plan A could not have worked or that the sage of Twickenham was necessarily right. It required though a number of other things to go right or not go badly wrong - for the Chancellor to be lucky - and this Chancellor has not been lucky.

It probably did not help that in act of misguided hubris the Regional Development Agencies were given their marching orders from day one - particularly as the replacement Local Enterprise Partnerships have struggled either to find their feet or get real money flowing through the system. RDAs stood in need of reform but the incoming government's penchant for "radical restructuring" has led in more than one area to a lot of time being wasted doing just that.

One cannot help thinking that much of this is a poisonous consequence of the tribalism that bedevils British politics whereby incoming governments are expected to behave like the Taliban blowing up Buddhas. One hoped that coalition could offset this tendency.

That’s why the reasoned tone as much as much as the substance of Alistair Darling's intervention last week matters. Frankly positioned as George Osborne is between supply-side zealots who see manic deregulation as a cure-all and irritating post match analysis from the Lib Dem benches, anything that makes non-partisan discussion and decision-making easier must be welcome.

For regardless of what party we belong to or what sector of the economy we work in, it is becoming painfully clear that facile and easy solutions to our economic plight are not available and for better or worse - we are all in this together.

John Pugh is the Lib Dem MP for Southport

George Osborne hasn't had any luck. Photograph: Getty Images

John Pugh is the Lib Dem MP for Southport.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

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.