Osborne rides to Labour’s rescue

He has forced Labour to acknowledge that if you cut less now, you have to cut for longer.

The deterioration of the public finances will guarantee George Osborne tough headlines for his mini-Budget Autumn Statement. Labour argues that it stands vindicated: the government's strategy has failed. But is anyone listening to the Labour case -- and even if they are, will it change how they vote?

Labour's first problem is that it is still blamed for the deficit. Whilst it was conducting a lengthy leadership election last year, the coalition partners successfully persuaded the public that gross profligacy during the Labour years was to blame for the ballooning deficit. In a neat piece of political framing, the Coalition said Labour had "maxed out on the country's credit card", thereby making a symbolic association between high household debt and government deficits. An electorate suffering a hangover from a consumption binge and the bursting of a housing market bubble was in receptive mood. Labour had presided over a splurge, and spending had to be cut.

Labour has never given a convincing answer to this charge. It hasn't consistently articulated an alternative account of why the deficit grew so large during the 2008/9 financial crisis, other than to blame the global economic meltdown and admit to the failure of its light-touch regulation of the City of London. Consequently, it remains vulnerable to the criticism that it is in denial about the deficit.

Yet it doesn't have to be boxed into this corner. In reality, Labour got the tax -- not spending -- side of the tax-spend equation wrong. Although it should have been running a small surplus in the run-up to the crisis, its big failure was consistently to over-estimate tax revenues. And ultimately, this was about the structure of the economy itself: the tax base was too reliant on revenue from the City, the housing market and wealthy individuals. A quarter of all corporation tax was being paid by City firms before the recession.

When the crisis struck, these sources of revenue collapsed, leaving a huge hole in the public finances. But whereas in Germany a loss of economic output in the recession of between 6 per cent and 7 per cent of GDP -- roughly the same magnitude as in the UK -- led to a deficit of 3.5 per cent of GDP, in the UK the deficit reached nearly 12 per cent of national output. As the chart from the Autumn Statement today below shows, lacking a resilient, broad tax base, the UK's public finances were far more exposed than many other countries on the Continent (conversely, the fact that the UK has its own currency and Central Bank gave it the flexibility and tools it needed to fight the economic downturn: had it joined the Euro, a fully-fledged sovereign debt crisis would have been on the cards immediately).

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Labour should acknowledge its responsibility for the deficit in these terms, rather than apologising for over-spending as its critics demand. Indeed, a reckoning with its fiscal record of this kind is precisely what would allow it to build a bridge to the kind of responsible, long-termist, rebalanced capitalism that Ed Miliband has made such a central part of his platform. A fairer, more robust political economy in the UK would produce more resilient public finances: prudence would be built on firmer foundations that self-declared fiscal rules. Without such an account, the deficit weighs like a drag anchor on Labour's economic credibility.

The party's second problem is a paradoxical one. It is this: the more it is right about the Coalition's "too far, too fast" fiscal strategy, the greater the task it sets itself to persuade the public to trust it again on the public finances at the next General Election. Labour has got it broadly right on fiscal strategy over the last year. The Keynesians are getting the better of the argument. But politically, all the talk of cuts simply reinforces the perception that Labour doesn't acknowledge the need for fiscal rectitude in the medium term. Labour spokespeople eschew being drawn too far into declaring which cuts they would make, for fear of confusing the electorate on their central argument about growth and jobs (indeed, there doesn't even appear to be a consistent script that Labour frontbenchers use when asked to describe what cuts or tax rises they would make to bring down the deficit). Instead, they talk up the impact of cuts in almost every department. The party has made no tough spending choices -- nothing at least that the electorate might recall.

It is on this score that Osborne has now ridden to Labour's rescue. By pushing back his structural deficit reduction plans into the next Parliament, he has forced Labour to acknowledge what its position would all along have entailed: that if you cut less now, you have to cut for longer. In his speech to the IPPR last week Ed Miliband made a virtue of this fact, saying to Osborne that if he failed to eradicate the structural deficit in this Parliament, Labour would have to finish the job. Commentators immediately pricked up their ears. Labour was on a path back to fiscal prudence.
Osborne has today set out further fiscal tightening of £8 billion in 2015/16 and £7 billion in 2016/17 on the cyclically-adjusted current budget. That means that we know the broad spending position for the first two years of the next Parliament, just as we did in 1997 when Labour said it would match Ken Clarke's plans. The same electoral arithmetic is clicking into place today.

Of course, had it been in power Labour would have arrived at the same place by a different route. It will also mercilessly attack the government for having failed meet its targets because of weak growth and high unemployment. But the central political fact remains that at the next election, Labour will now be in the business of fiscal rectitude in a way that it has previously not had to acknowledge.

It should now use the opportunity presented by this changed political landscape to develop new, politically compelling routes to social democracy that don't rely on spending increases. Instead, it should rest instead on the central pillars of deep economic reform, switches of spending into public services that support higher living standards, like childcare, and the reform of public services to secure greater efficiency and effectiveness for given levels of spending. If it completes these tasks, it may find it has much to thank Osborne for.

Nick Pearce is Director of IPPR

Nick Pearce is Professor of Public Policy & Director of the Institute for Policy Research, University of Bath.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.