The land of broken promises

The coalition may claim to be committed to front-line services and public-sector jobs, but the econo

I listened to the Old and Sad by-election results online on Radio 5 Live from sunny Florida, which, incidentally, was the only US state that didn't have snow this past week. The British electorate was inevitably going to turn against the coalition and Nick Clegg was only able to avoid disaster because the Tories didn't try very hard. Apparently, they were away skiing with their banker friends -- George Osborne was, anyway.

Economic data continues to worsen in four crucial areas -- construction, net trade, business investment and unemployment -- even before the cuts and tax rises take effect. The volume of construction output in the latest data release fell by 0.7 per cent. New work fell by 0.5 per cent and repair and maintenance fell by 1.1 per cent. The biggest fall -- 6.4 per cent -- was in infrastructure new work. Construction was the main driver for the growth that was observed in the second and third quarters of 2010.

New figures for 2010 Q3, published by the Office for National Statistics [PDF] on 22 December, show that business investment, in seasonally adjusted terms, rose by 3.1 per cent. This is good news -- but total manufacturing investment decreased by 2.5 per cent compared with the previous quarter. Apart from a period of strong growth in 2010 Q1, business investment is yet to show any significant momentum since GDP started to recover in 2009 Q4. No individual industry has acted as a catalyst for overall growth. The Office for Budget Responsibility's forecast assumes that investment is a major driver in the recovery and will grow by more than 10 per cent per annum.

The latest net trade data was also bad. The UK's deficit on trade in goods and services was £4.1bn in November, compared with a deficit of £4.0bn in October. On average, forecasters expect the UK net trade deficit to make a 0.5 per cent contribution to GDP growth in 2011, having detracted from growth in 2010.

Worst of all, the number of unemployed youngsters under the age of 25 has hit a record 951,000, surpassing the previous record of 944,000 reached in June and September 2009. This represents an increase of more than 50,000 over the past three months.

More than 225,000 youngsters have been unemployed [PDF] for more than 12 months, increasing fears of a "lost generation". What a shame, then, that Alastair Darling's plan to tax the bankers and use the money to pay for measures to reduce youth unemployment has now been ditched for no good reason by the Con-Dem coalition

.A

The list of the government's broken promises is growing. Before the election, the Tories promised a "fair fuel stabiliser" to keep petrol tax rises down when oil prices are high. It looks as if they have reneged on that promise, even though David Cameron raised hopes that it would be implemented. And then there are those bankers. In opposition, Osborne and Cameron played a dirty political game, suggesting that they were going to restrict bonuses. They said that no banker's bonus would be higher than £2,000 -- a policy that is still on the Conservative Party website. Slasher Osborne has also delayed plans to force banks to disclose all bonus payments exceeding £1m -- despite the government naming every public official earning more than £55,000.

As my old friend Will Hutton wrote in the Observer this week:

Bankers' bonuses unite everyone in outrage -- from captains of industry, bewildered how top bankers can earn so much more than they do, to the newly unemployed, who wonder what they have done to deserve poverty and hardship while the money men pocket millions . . . The banks, far from serving the real economy, have become a tax on it.

The public has no objection, as far as I can tell, for payment for performance. The objection is mostly about payments for lack of performance.

Comments by the CEO of Barclays, Bob Diamond, in front of the Treasury select committee that the "period of remorse and apology for banks . . . needs to be over" didn't seem to capture the public mood. You would have thought Diamond's advisers would have warned him about other recent PR disasters, including that of BP's Tony Hayward, who said "I want my life back" after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion killed 11 workers and leaked 206 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Similarly, the CEOs of the big three car makers flew in on luxurious private jets to give testimony to the US Congress that the auto industry was running out of cash and needed $25bn in taxpayer money to avoid bankruptcy. The next time they testified, the CEOs of Chrysler, Ford and GM drove the 500-plus miles in their latest fuel-efficient models.

People compare themselves to their friends and neighbours and workers care about the salaries of their colleagues. So taxpayers are angry about bankers getting big bonuses at a time when almost everyone else is experiencing declining real incomes. The recently published earnings data from the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (Ashe) for 2010 show how tough things are. Mean annual earnings for the 25 million employees in the UK grew, on average by only 0.2 per cent on the year; while in the private sector earnings fell by 0.8 per cent. Public-sector earnings grew by just 0.6 per cent. However, this wage growth partly reflects the transfer of the publicly owned banks Lloyds and RBS in October 2008 from the private to the public sector -- moving a number of relatively well-paid workers with them. And there is a public-sector wage freeze, along with a hiring embargo, so there is no likelihood of an explosion in wage inflation.

The table below shows the differing levels of importance of the public sector by regions in Britain, according to the Ashe survey. The public sector accounts for 39 per cent of workers in Wales, 38 per cent in Scotland and 37 per cent in the north east; it accounts for around a quarter in London and the south east. The second column shows that public-sector jobs outside London and the south east, on average, are better paid than private-sector jobs. Public-sector job losses are going to hit hardest regions such as the north east, Wales and Scotland, which have relatively high unemployment rates. We are demonstrably not all in this together.

A

In a speech on public services on 17 January 2011, David Cameron said: "As we take the tough but necessary steps to deal with the deficit, our first priority is to protect front-line services and to protect jobs in the public services." Don't laugh.

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and a professor at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, and the University of Stirling.

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

0800 7318496