Greece: apocalypse postponed?

The key question is whether Greece can retain the euro and reduce austerity.

After yesterday's Greek election it is clear that most of the country's voters want two things: for Greece to remain in the euro and for it to adopt a reduced pace of austerity. The key question today is whether these competing demands can be reconciled. All of the Greek parties, to varying degrees, are calling for an easing (or abandonment) of the bailout conditions, with both the victorious centre-right New Democracy and the third-placed centre-right PASOK demanding slower cuts, higher unemployment benefits and a reversal of the reduction in the minimum wage. They are also insistent that Greece must remain in the single currency (the exception being the communist KKE, which has called for the restoration of the drachma.)

The likelihood is that the country will now be led by a grand coalition of New Democracy-PASOK. Last night, PASOK insisted that it would not join a coalition without the presence of the left-wing Syriza, which finished second with 27 per cent of the vote, prompting some to raise the spectre of a third election. Syriza, which relishes the prospect of becoming the country's official opposition, has already ruled out joining any coalition. Who will broke the deadlock? Despite its reluctance to join a "bailout coalition" (seen as an act of electoral suicide), PASOK will almost certainly drop its insistence on the participation of Syriza and, at the very least, offer New Democracy "confidence and supply".

The question will then be whether the new government can extract more favourable terms from its EU creditors. There are some signs this morning that it may be able to do so. On the Today programme, German CDU politician Michael Fuchs suggested that Greece could be given more time to repay its debts. But at this stage, minor concessions will do little to alter Greece's fate. Germany must use the window of opportunity provided by the election to finally engage in fiscal stimulus and allow the European Central Bank to act as a lender of last resort. But so long as Merkel, the high priestess of austerity, remains wedded to her current course, the eurozone is destined for stagnation at best and collapse at worse.

New Democracy party leader, Antonis Samaras, smiles at supporters after his party came first in the country's general election. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR