Planning for long-term growth tells us what we should do in the short-term

Demand-friendly cuts and tax rises will boost UK PLC now.

Two things are striking about yesterday’s report of the LSE Growth Commission. The first is the very strong implication of its conclusions that the path to future prosperity is decidedly one involving, indeed demanding, government involvement in the economy rather than the state stepping back. The second is what its prescription for long-term economic growth says about how we should get the UK out of its current economic malaise.

The first isn’t a political statement. Indeed, the Commission points to evidence that the pick-up in Britain’s relative productivity growth began in the 1980s, and is largely attributable to the policies of Conservative (but also Labour) governments. Most of the growth-enhancing reforms are clear victories for economic liberals: increased labour market flexibility, better active labour market policies, and openness to foreign capital and labour.

But what the report also makes clear is that the benefits of simply removing such barriers to growth has run its course. The authors couldn’t be clearer that “demands for ever greater deregulation and reductions in government spending as a panacea for the UK’s growth problems are misguided.” Rather it is now the state that must act and invest wisely if the UK is to keep pace with productivity growth in other leading countries. Investment in education at every stage from pre-school to vocational training is advocated. The authors argue for new and better government institutions – and indeed public investment – to stimulate investment in transport and energy infrastructure. And a new role is claimed for the state role in subsidising R&D through a business bank, taking “a wider view of the social returns to innovative projects”.

All in all this amounts to a significant increase in state involvement in the economy. It’s also hard to see how this agenda is compatible with the current government’s plan to load future fiscal consolidation entirely onto departmental spending between now and 2018. As SMF research has recently shown, protecting education spending – let alone increasing it – alongside health at the next spending review will impose politically unacceptable cuts on other public services. There will certainly be no scope for increasing public investment in infrastructure, or scaling-up Vince Cable’s business bank.

In other words, the supply siders had some useful insights in the 1980s, on which the recent productivity spurt was largely based. But the prescriptions of advocates for a small state and blanket deregulation are now the road to economic lassitude.

So what about the short term? While the Commission focuses on long-term growth rather than remedies for the current stagnation, there is a strong link between the two. The reforms advocated will take many years, and perhaps decades, to bear fruit. All the more important to start immediately. But with the deficit reduction programme now running to 2018, and an aging population likely to put further pressure on the budget thereafter, action can’t wait until the (hopefully) sunlit uplands of the next decade.

Rather than seeing the short- and long-term as distinct challenges, we must find a way to tackle the current economic problems in a way that lays the foundations for future growth. A huge and immediate investment strategy for our creaking transport, energy and housing infrastructure is the way to square the circle. And the chancellor can do it without deviating from his current deficit reduction plan.

How can this be achieved? With £31bn of further fiscal consolidation in the pipeline by 2018, the chancellor should bring forward cuts to elements of public spending which do little to support the economy, recycling the saved money into infrastructure investment between now and 2018. Prime examples of such "demand friendly" cuts include cutting benefit payments and give-aways to the better-off, and axing financial incentives for rich people to save more.

A growth-boosting deficit reduction strategy relies on funding the investment plan in ways that won’t damage demand in the economy. For this reason, having picked the low-hanging fruit on demand-friendly cuts, some proportion of the necessary £31bn should come from growth-friendly tax rises. Income tax and corporation tax should be avoided. But much higher property taxes would raise money while having little impact on growth. The socially beneficial effects of a well-designed tax on housing allocation is another story. Raising that money immediately and investing it between now and 2018 would kick-start growth and help to leave UK PLC set fair for a productivity boom in the decades ahead. 

Photograph: Getty Images

Ian Mulheirn is the director of the Social Market Foundation.

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Two referendums have revived the Tories and undone Labour

The Scottish vote enabled the Conservatives' rebirth as the party of the Union; the Brexit vote has gifted Theresa May a project to reunite a fragmented right.

In the final week of the Scottish independence referendum campaign, as the Union appeared in peril, David Cameron pleaded with voters to punish his party rather than Scotland. “If you are fed up with the effing Tories, give them a kick,” he said. Cameron’s language reflected a settled view: the Conservatives were irredeemably loathed by Scots. For nearly two decades, the party had no more than one MP north of the border. Changing the party’s name for devolved contests was discussed.

Since becoming Conservative leader, Theresa May has pursued a hard – she prefers “clean” – Brexit strategy that Scots voted against and the Conservatives have achieved a UK-wide poll lead of 20 points.

Yet rather than regressing, the Scottish Conservatives have resurged. On 22 April, a Panelbase poll put them on 33 per cent in Scotland (a rise of 18 points since 2015). A favoured Labour barb used to be that there were more pandas (two) in Scotland than Tory MPs (one). The poll would leave the Tories with 12 seats and Corbyn’s party with none. Tory aides confess that they were surprised by the figures but declare there are “no limits to our ambitions” in Scotland.

The roots of this recovery lie in the 2014 independence referendum. The vote, and the SNP’s subsequent landslide victory in the 2015 general election, realigned Scottish politics along unionist and nationalist lines. Led by Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservatives have ably exploited the opportunity. “We said No. We meant it,” the party’s official slogan declares of Nicola Sturgeon’s demand for a second referendum. Under Ruth Davidson, the Tories have already become the official opposition at Holyrood.

Labour is torn between retaining unionists and winning back nationalists. It has been punished for its equivocation, as it is being punished over its confused response to Brexit. In April 2016, the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, said that it was “not inconceivable” that she could back independence if the UK voted to leave the EU (and earlier suggested that MPs and MSPs could be given a free vote). Jeremy Corbyn recently stated that he was “absolutely fine” with a second referendum being held.

“For us it’s a badge of honour but there are some people in Scottish Labour who are quite queasy about that word [unionist] and I think Jeremy Corbyn would be very queasy about it,” Adam Tomkins, a Conservative MSP for Glasgow and public law professor, told me. “Don’t forget the Northern Ireland dimension; we’ve all seen the photos of him rubbing shoulders with leading republicans. The Scottish Union is very different to the Irish Union but the word migrates.”

The irony is that Corbyn allies believed his anti-austerity, anti-Trident platform would allow Labour to recover in Scotland. Yet the pre-eminence of the national question has left it in a political no-man’s land.

In contrast to the rest of the UK, Scots backed Remain by 62 per cent to 38 per cent. Far from protecting EU membership, as David Cameron had promised in the referendum campaign, the preservation of the Union now threatened it. Theresa May has since yielded no ground, denying Scotland both a second independence referendum on terms dictated by the SNP and single market membership. But polls show no rise in support for independence.

Conservative aides believe that Sturgeon miscalculated by immediately raising the prospect of a second referendum following the Leave vote last June. Families and communities were riven by the 2014 contest. Most had little desire to disrupt the uneasy peace that has prevailed since.

Nor are the politics of Brexit as uncomplicated as some assume. Thirty-six per cent of SNP supporters voted Leave and more than a third of this bloc have since turned against independence. As elsewhere, some Remainers have accepted the result and fear the instability that secession would cause. Scotland’s trade with the UK is worth four times as much as that with the EU. Davidson, who was one of the most forceful advocates for Remain, says that pursuing independence to counter the effects of Brexit would be “stubbing your toe to then amputate your foot”.

Theresa May, who spoke of the “precious” Union when she became Prime Minister, has devoted great attention to Scotland. Cabinet ministers are instructed to develop a “Scottish plan” when they formulate policy; buildings funded by the UK government now bear its insignia. Davidson’s influence was crucial to May’s decision to retain the 0.7 per cent foreign aid commitment – an emblem of compassionate conservatism.

After a decade of SNP rule, Tory aides believe that their rival’s poor domestic record, most notably on education, is “catching up with them”. More than a year has elapsed since the Scottish Parliament passed new legislation. “We’ve got a government that simply isn’t very interested in governing,” Tomkins said. “I thought that Nicola [Sturgeon] would change that. I was wrong.” What preoccupies the SNP is the constitutional question.

Shortly after the remarkable Scottish polls, a new survey showed the Tories on course to win the most seats in Wales for the first time since 1859. For some former Labour supporters, voting Ukip is proving a gateway drug to voting Conservative.

Two referendums have now realigned politics in the Tories’ favour. The Scottish vote enabled their rebirth as the party of the Union; the Brexit vote has gifted May a project to reunite a fragmented right.

Before the 2015 general election, Labour derided the Tories as a southern English force unworthy of their official name: the Conservative and Unionist Party. Partly through accident and partly through design, May and Davidson are now reclaiming it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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