Yet again, the budget pushes the North a little further from the South

It's two nation Britain.

With growth forecasts halved to 0.6 per cent this year, and unemployment rising again in the north of England, this needed to be a budget for growth across the UK. Instead, the headline measures will do more to further inflate house prices and childcare costs in London and very little to boost regional economic opportunities. Meanwhile, further public spending cuts – not least in pay and benefits - will have a continued deflationary impact on many Northern towns and cities.

The budget has come on a day when unemployment figures show the North-South divide widening further – up by 10,000 people across the north of England in the past quarter compared with a 17,000 fall in London.

Measures such as the increase in the income tax threshold and the National Insurance allowance for small businesses will be welcomed by many but won’t have the effect of rebalancing the economy – rather, they will tend to benefit those areas where wages are higher and the business base is broader.

More significantly, measures to increase new house building are to be welcomed but there is a significant risk that making it easier for borrowers will simply prop up prices – indeed, inflate prices – rather than getting additional homes built. It is not clear that Help to Buy will generate additional new housing starts, beyond what would have been undertaken anyway (which will certainly not be the case for mortgage subsidies that are not linked to new-build) and the 15,000 new homes promised in the budget go nowhere near most estimates which suggest we need to build an extra 250,000 new homes a year to meet rising demand. Similarly, childcare changes will soon be wiped out as providers inflate costs with little additional provision.

Of those measures that will stimulate growth it is too little too late. It is encouraging news that the Chancellor has broadly endorsed the Heseltine report but with government sources suggesting that resources going into the "single pot" will be in the “lower billions” rather than the £49 billion Heseltine recommended – and even then not until April 2015 – this will hardly be a short-term stimulus.

The £3bn boost in infrastructure spending is something that IPPR North and many others have been calling for many months but will do little to help us catch the levels of capital investment spent in other nations and once again won’t land until 2015/16. Furthermore, we cannot hope this will boost regional growth when we currently plan to spend £2,595 per person on transport in London compared to just £115 per person in the north. Transport spending must be devolved more fairly to have a real impact.

With much evidence pointing towards the critical role regional economic development is playing in stimulating national economies across the developed world, this budget – however populist – will do little to restore the economic health of the nation and will ultimately be regarded as a missed opportunity.

But perhaps the bigger tragedy than this missed opportunity is the fact that regional prosperity hangs so much on central government decision-making at all. With greater fiscal decentralisation economic growth could be better tailored to the particular needs of local and regional economies and less dependent upon the big levers so clumsily wielded by chancellor after chancellor. Such reform is long overdue.  

Photograph: Getty Images

Ed Cox is Director at IPPR North. He tweets @edcox_ippr.

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide