George Osborne must ignore the siren calls – and take steps to raise potential growth

The CPS' Ryan Bourne gives its hitlist for the 2013 budget.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve heard from advocates of more government spending to attempt to stimulate the economy, advocates of shock-and-awe tax cuts to stimulate the economy, people suggesting the Government needs more interventionist long-term planning for the economy, and calls from back-bench Conservative MPs that this should be a‘cost-of-living’ budget.

Following more than £500 billion of deficit spending, £375 billion of QE, interest rates at their lowest level in the history of the Bank of England, a sharp fall in sterling, and with inflation continuously above target, it is difficult not to agree with Sir Mervyn King that most of our economic problems are structural. Years of a stagnant economy despite extraordinary monetary and fiscal policies suggest that in the wake of the crisis we are now suffering from a sustained fall in potential growth on unchanged supply-side policies – which, even if you do believe that stimulus spending policies work, cannot be solved by more short-term borrowing or money printing. Those convinced the economy just needs a kick-start to push it into a new equilibrium of self-sustaining recovery should look at Japan’s recent economic history.

Nor would increasing the structural deficit by borrowing significantly more for tax cuts be sensible. With public sector net borrowing still over 8% of GDP and debts already above the level known to permanently retard growth for two decades, adding to the deficit significantly, two years before the uncertainty of another general election, poses significant risks in bond markets (and even if we print to hold yields down, merely transfers to a problem for sterling).

The Budget then needs to recognise that the UK has a medium-term growth problem. It should therefore contain policies to raise our medium-term growth rate. This is the main insight which drives the 20 recommendations which we set out in Take the Long View, ahead of next week’s Budget. We suggest a three-pronged approach addressing fiscal strategy, supply-side reform and a robust pro-competition agenda in certain oligopolistic industries.

Support is waning for the Government’s fiscal agenda, but in truth cuts to investment expenditure and tax hikes were front-loaded and cuts to current expenditure were back-loaded. For a developed country like the UK, evidence suggests that cutting the latter not only has a far smaller impact on short-term growth, but also enhances medium-term growth. Abandoning the overall plan now, just as it about to start cutting in the right areas, would be madness. In fact, if anything the level of current spending cuts are inadequate. Because of ring-fencing of several large items, current spending overall is actually forecast to increase in real-terms over the course of this Parliament by 0.7%. But this assumes growth will generate large increases in tax revenues to close the deficit. As we mentioned above, we do not believe this will happen on unchanged policies. So further cuts to current spending, in part used for enterprise inducing tax cuts, should be implemented to enhance the economy’s medium-term growth rate.

To decide where these cuts fall the next spending review should examine all spending without any ring-fencing, particularly focusing on areas which have the smallest effects on short-term growth, like pensioner benefits, retirement ages, and eligibility for a host of other transfers. A failure to re-open spending in this way risks some budgets being savaged to protect areas of which have seen significant largesse over the past decade.

On the tax side, the spending review should be supplemented by better resourcing of the Office for Tax Simplification and giving it a more strategic role over efforts to simplify and restore trust in our tax system. Substantial pro-growth tax reform, along the lines of broadening bases and lowering rates, is an area which the Coalition has so far done little.

On the supply-side, the key aim is to raise the productive potential of the economy. A Small Business Incentive Scheme, which includes significant exemptions from regulation for small businesses, should be introduced. Though less sexy, a framework for ‘sunset clauses’ for new regulations should be rolled out and Michael Fallon’s ambitions for deregulation utilised by widening the scope of the ‘One-in, Two-out’ framework further. And the Government should look again at the case for abolishing national pay bargaining, which could substantially enhance public sector efficiency and counter regional inequalities in the medium-term.

Finally, the only sustainable way to address rising living costs for the UK public requires an aggressive pro-market agenda in many oligopolistic industries to enhance innovation and productivity, and to lower costs. Banking, energy, water, rail and education are all necessity industries or state run services where there is scope for much more competition, and there would be much more beneficial long-term effects of removing barriers to entry for new providers, and providing a level playing field for existing market participants, in these than dealing with the symptoms of our current cost-of-living problems through fiddling with changes to certain taxes or subsidies.

20 recommendations for the budget

On fiscal strategy

  1. Announce the remit of the 2013/14 spending review. This should include:
    • plans to cut government current expenditure substantially over the next five years with no ring-fences;
    • a programme of reducing entitlement eligibility;
    • a plan to raise retirement ages more rapidly than currently planned.
  2. Widen the remit of the Office for Tax Simplification to establish tax reforms for the rest of this Parliament along the principles of base-broadening and lowering rates.
  3. Pledge no new taxes or further net tax rate rises for the 2013/14 spending review period.
  4. Set out a path to raise the threshold for the basic rate of Income Tax to the equivalent of the gross income of a full-time earner on the minimum wage.
  5. Cut Capital Gains Tax immediately, as it is above the revenue maximising rate.
  6. Commit to further reductions in Corporation Tax.
  7. Re-open negotiations on public sector pensions.
  8. Supply-side reform
    Announce a Small Business Incentive Scheme to include a package of exemptions from regulations for very small businesses. This should include exemptions from: minimum wage legislation for those under 21; requests for time off for training; and pension auto-enrolment.
  9. Adopt sunset clauses for all regulations with a post-implementation audit three years after enactment of each regulation; and bring more regulation into the scope of 'One-In Two-Out'.
  10. Adopt a Consolidated Planning Act and repeal all existing legislation with a single rationalised Act.
  11. Encourage neighbouring local councils to co-operate in identifying sites for new Garden Cities.
  12. Abolish national pay bargaining in the public sector.
  13. Ensure that the recommendations of the Davies Review of airport capacity can be implemented swiftly.
  14. An agenda for competition
    Adopt the "Fair Shares" scheme for the re-privatisation of Lloyds and RBS.
  15. Reduce the regulatory burden on new banks.
  16. Give the Financial Conduct Authority a competition mandate.
  17. Require the legal separation of retail and supply arms of water companies, paving the way for the extension of retail competition.
  18. Encourage far greater competition between operators on the rail network.
  19. Lift the bar on profit-making companies running academies and free schools.
  20. Abandon the planned unilateral carbon price floor and phase out subsidies for renewable energies.
Photograph: Getty Images

Ryan Bourne is the head of economic research at the Centre for Policy Studies.

Photo: Getty
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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.