Cameron is wrong: the spending cuts are ideological

The Prime Minister says the cuts are not due to his “ideological zeal”. Here’s why he’s wrong.

In his New Year message, David Cameron attempts to rebut the charge that the government's spending cuts are ideologically driven.

He writes:

I didn't come into politics to make cuts. Neither did Nick Clegg. But in the end politics is about national interest, not personal political agendas. We're tackling the deficit because we have to – not out of some ideological zeal. This is a government led by people with a practical desire to sort out this country's problems, not by ideology.

Here are three reasons why he's wrong.

The coalition could have taxed more and cut less

There was an alternative to George Osborne's £81bn spending cuts: higher taxes on the richest in our society. The Chancellor has chosen to reduce the deficit through a 59:41 ratio of spending cuts to tax rises in 2010/2011, rising to 77:23 by 2015/2016 (see Table 1.1 in the Budget).

But as the graphic below from the Economist shows, most deficit reductions have involved a far more even split between tax rises and spending cuts.

Deficit-reduction

The coalition's deficit reduction programme relies more heavily on spending cuts than all but two of the largest OECD fiscal consolidations.

A higher level of tax rises on top earners would have enabled a more progressive programme of fiscal consolidation (the cuts are, by any measure, regressive) and, as I explain below, a less economically reckless approach.

The coalition could have raised more revenue through a tax on land value (69 per cent of which is owned by just 0.6 per cent of the population); a genuine crackdown on the £25bn lost each year through tax avoidance; a tougher, not a weaker, bank levy; and higher, not lower, corporation tax.

The decision to rely on punitive spending cuts to reduce the deficit was a political choice, not an economic necessity.

Spending cuts harm the economy more than tax rises

Economists are agreed that the government's spending cuts will hit growth harder than tax rises would. As Duncan Weldon explains at the excellent False Economy, the fiscal multiplier (the effect on GDP of a tax rise or a spending cut) proves as much. The Office for Budget Responsibility's own multipliers (see Table C8 in the Budget) show that the cuts will reduce growth by significantly more than the coalition's tax rises.

As the shadow chancellor, Alan Johnson, noted in his pre-Spending Review speech: "We know from the Office for Budget Responsibility's own figures that a spending cut hits growth twice as hard as a tax change – three times as hard when it's capital spending."

The government's decision to ignore such economic evidence is the result of an ideological preference for spending cuts.

The cuts are permanent, not temporary

When asked by a Fire Brigade worker last summer if funding would be restored once the deficit has been addressed, Cameron replied:

The direct answer to your question, should we cut things now and go back later and try and restore them later, [is] I think we should be trying to avoid that approach.

The Prime Minister's insistence that we should try to "avoid that approach" reveals an ideological attachment to the small state and to low levels of public spending. The result will be permanently shrunken public services.

The cuts will reduce public spending from 47.3 per cent of GDP in 2010/2011 to 39.8 per cent in 2015/2016 – equivalent to reductions made by Margaret Thatcher between 1979 and 1990. But for many on the right, this is just the beginning of their long war against the active state.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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