Ed Balls rails against cuts to manufacturing

“Curtailing ambition”.

Ed Balls used his address to yesterday’s EEF Manufacturing Conference, perhaps unsurprisingly, as a platform to rail against spending cuts in advance of the delivery of the budget in two weeks’ time.

Playing straight to his manufacturer audience’s fear of Britain sliding into industrial obscurity, he warned that the government’s obsession with deficit reduction at the expense of long-term investment would “curtail ambition” in business and “militate against” the UK’s ability to compete with Europe (read, Germany).

His appearance at the conference coincided with the publication today of a labour-commissioned report by Sir George Cox, Overcoming short-termism within British business, which argues for executive pay to reflect success over longer cycles, tax changes to favour equity markets, and a mechanism to make infrastructure investment decisions independent of political cycles.

Despite a fantastically awkward bit of audience Q&A, in which Balls avoided verbally signing his party up to Sir George’s proposals even though the report author was sitting just feet away in the front row, the rhetoric seemed to go over well with delegates.

But in terms of a demonstration of long term-thinking, the Sturm & Drang over the budget’s treatment of British business paled in comparison to the day’s opening presentation, delivered by Jim “BRICs” O’Neill, Goldman Sachs’ chairman of asset management.

As one might expect from the man who coined the now ubiquitous acronym for emerging markets, O’Neill had very little to say directly about the state of British industry, and even the UK’s fortunes in the context of the Eurozone crisis.

Instead he spoke frankly, and backed by some very big statistics, about the overwhelming importance of emerging markets, particularly China, to both the UK and world economies over the decades to come.

Professing himself to be an optimist, O’Neill predicted the world economy would grow close to 4 per cent in the current decade, largely thanks to China which, he reminded us in words notoriously borrowed by David Cameron, grows the equivalent of Greek GDP every twelve and a half weeks. To underscore the point, O’Neill mentioned in passing that China had, since the end of 2010, grown by approximately the current size of the Indian economy.

He said that if the US and China could partially reverse their traditional roles with regard to production and consumption, so that China ended up “spending more and producing less” and the US vice versa, “it would be a very good sign – and this appears to be happening.”

In response to audience anxiety over the Eurozone, he acknowledged that while Europe was still the single most important export region for the UK, the percentage of UK exports going to the Eurozone had fallen from 55 per cent to 45 per cent over the last decade, and would likely fall further to 39 per cent by 2020.

By the same point time, he argued, 17 per cent of UK exports will likely be destined for the BRICs, while Germany will probably be exporting twice as much to China as to France. If we had known that in the early 1990s, he posited, there might never have been a Eurozone in the first place.

When drawn by session chair Krishnan Guru-Murthy on what he would do if he were chancellor in two weeks, his answer said more through understatement than Balls did through twenty minutes on the soapbox:

“Those nations with more emphasis on long-term fiscal consolidation rather than a "cut debt now" mentality tend to be recovering better… It’s entirely understandable to want to lower debt and to shrink [the financial services] sector… but trying to do both at once? It could be very difficult, and I think I’ll leave it at that”.

Ed Balls. Photograph: Getty Images

By day, Fred Crawley is editor of Credit Today and Insolvency Today. By night, he reviews graphic novels for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.