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.

Show Hide image

The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.