This was no Autumn Statement for growth

The measures announced today by Osborne will increase output by a meagre 0.1 per cent.

Today’s Autumn Statement was a strange creature. The Chancellor has gone to great lengths to implement a bunch of expensive supply side measures to help the economy grow. But at the same time, the Office for Budget Responsibility appears to have gone in the opposite direction, suggesting that it’s the demand side, not the supply side of the economy that is where the problem lies. That would imply a rather different set of measures to the ones we saw today.

In the run-up to today, the government set a few hares running about how it was going to reallocate current to capital spending to boost growth. Since capital spending tends to raise economic output by more than current spending, building schools and roads could provide a sorely needed boost to the stagnant economy. Just what the doctor ordered. And such a shift was exactly the sort of thing the Social Market Foundation advocated last February as a way to provide a fiscal stimulus without deviating from the Chancellor’s deficit reduction plan.

In the event, the investment is a pretty paltry £2.3bn next year and £3bn after that. On its own, that might boost output by about the same amount: a piddling 0.1 per cent of GDP in each year. Unfortunately, even this microscopic growth measure is all but cancelled out by where the funds have been raised from. The decision to uprate benefits by just 1 per cent for three years will suck demand out of the economy from next April, all but off-setting any stimulus effect of the investment plan. Quite apart from the fairness debate, if you need to save money from the welfare bill, it would have been far wiser to wait until the economy is back on its feet.

By contrast, one bright spot – and it was only a spot – was the decision to raise £600m from limiting pension tax relief for top earners. Cutting spending on measures that encourage people to take money out of the economy is an excellent example of a demand-friendly cut. Well done the Lib Dems. They should have done more.

Unsurprisingly, then, for all the infrastructure investment chat, the OBR estimates that the measures in the Autumn Statement will increase output by a meagre 0.1 per cent. This was no ‘Autumn Statement for growth’, whatever the rhetoric.

What this statement was really about was supply side measures, and here the Chancellor has really pulled out the stops. Raising the personal allowance and capping fare rises will make work pay more for the middle classes. Eroding benefits will sharpen work incentives by making life more uncomfortable for those out of work or on low wages. The populist fuel-duty give-away will cut the costs for firms and families. And the corporation tax cut will marginally encourage investment. But it is very unlikely that these measures will do anything to stimulate growth, in the short-term at least.

And here the OBR seems to be saying that the Chancellor has misdiagnosed the problem. Last month the SMF replicated the OBR’s models for estimating how much of the current deficit will remain once the economy gets back to normal. Had the OBR stuck to its models, they would have said that the demand shortfall in the economy was relatively minimal. In that world, supply side policies might make some sense. But today, the OBR junked its models wholesale, adopting a totally different technique. Now they’re saying that the economy is suffering from a large and increasingly persistent shortfall in demand.

The biggest threat to the supply side of the UK economy is from a yawning output gap. Weak demand means that unemployed workers will slip into permanent inactivity, while capital will depreciate. Incentives to invest will remain weak, and banks will see no advantage to calling time on their zombie company clients. This is all very bad news for our future prosperity and our society. But action on demand from the Chancellor has been entirely rhetorical today. Frenetic activity on the supply side looks like fiddling while Rome burns.

Chancellor George Osborne delivers his Autumn Statement in the House of Commons. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ian Mulheirn is the director of the Social Market Foundation.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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