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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.