The budget: déjà vu all over again

Prepare for a rush to the calculators, writes Tullett Prebon's Tim Morgan.

How do you start a budget speech? Well, “stop me if you’ve heard this one before” would be appropriate, because, to quote Yogi Berra, this budget is likely to be a case of “déjà vu all over again”. The economy will, yet again, have confounded the serial optimists at the OBR. The deficit reduction plan will…er, yet again…have gone further adrift of the government’s plan. The debt target will – well, “yet again” – have slipped by another year.

This time, though, observers will need to keep their calculators handy if they are to figure out what is really happening. Whilst Mr Osborne is likely to disappoint sensation-seekers, lovers of the obscure will have a field-day.

One of the less scrupulous initiatives of the Nixon administration was the concept of “core inflation”. This, it was claimed, showed the real state of affairs if distorting variables were left out. The snag, of course, was that the things that Tricky Dickey wanted to omit were those very items – energy and food – whose prices were rising most rapidly at the time. Small wonder that one critic dubbed it “inflation ex-inflation”. It’s a bit like saying that “Britain had wonderful weather in 2012, if we exclude the days on which it rained”.

The Treasury, it seems, is lining up a similar exercise in smoke-and-mirrors for the budget, arguing that the British economy looks fine and dandy if the weak bits (principally, finance and the North Sea) are left out. They could take this even further, of course, showing how the economy looks really terrific if we also leave out construction, real estate, retailing and the state-funded sectors…

If this is indeed a line that the Treasury pushes, it will join another piece of legerdemain which will portray a deficit of about 7.8% of GDP as something closer to 5.1% by including within the fiscal numbers, amongst other things, the £28bn assets (but not the £37bn liabilities) of the Royal Mail pension fund, taken over by the state in April.

Behind the statistical smoke, the reality is that Britain combines one of the developed world’s most troubled economies with one of its worst deficits. The biggest source of frustration for objective observers, however, will doubtless be yet another repetition of the sterile debate between plans A and B, with the government claiming that Britain’s policies would be working were it not for global economic conditions (‘it’s those foreigners again’), whilst Labour, ignoring the £1.1 trillion that has already been pumped into the economy, calls upon ministers to borrow Britain’s way out of a debt problem.

Considering the economy on a basis which excludes financial services would, of course, be ludicrous, because assessing Britain ex-banking is about as rational as evaluating Saudi ex-oil. Politicians who spent decades wooing the City seem now to have forgotten that it’s the financial sector which alone earns the foreign currency to pay for essential imports such as food (a deficit of -£18.7bn last year) and energy (-£21.3bn).

Let’s be clear that there is one initiative, above all, that could get the economy moving, and that is house-building. Unfortunately, the only way in which this could work – a state-financed programme of building council houses – contradicts the mantra of government ideology. Ministers would prefer to encourage private sector developers, but this idea is a non-starter. With the over-valued property market already critically exposed to interest rate risk, developers are not going to commit to building over-priced properties any more than mortgage lenders are going to rush to finance them.

Just this once, the government should sacrifice ideology to the public interest, and start building council houses, funding this from savings in current expenditure.

This post originally appeared on the Tullet Prebon Research blog, and is reposted here with permission.

Photograph: Getty Images/Edited: Alex Hern

Tim Morgan is the Global Head of Research for Tullett Prebon, an international broker.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.