Austerity after 2015: why the worst is yet to come

Without further welfare cuts or tax rises, the next government will have to cut departmental spending 50% faster.

With a week to go before the Spending Review, reports suggest that the Treasury has secured just a third of the £11.5bn of cuts planned in 2015-16. Yet amid the claim and counter-claim about how far departmental budgets can be squeezed, it is worth reflecting on how the review fits into the broader context of deficit reduction. If current plans are to be delivered, this round of cuts is merely an hors d'oeuvre for a far more painful set of decisions to be made after the next election.

New analysis by the Resolution Foundation shows that departments are already expected to be some 9% smaller on average in 2014-15 than in 2010-11 as a result of cuts in the 2010 Spending Review. With spending on health, schools and overseas aid protected, these have been far starker for some departments. At the extreme, the Foreign Office will be just half of its previous size, while the communities department will have shrunk by more than two-fifths. More typically, the defence budget will have fallen by 17%, while the Home Office will have suffered a 25% cut.

Not surprising, then, that the 2.6% of additional savings called for in 2015-16 are proving hard to find. With health, schools and overseas aid once again protected, the government’s plans imply average cuts of 8% across all other departments. With every additional pound of savings harder to identify than the last, don’t be surprised if the Chancellor decides to raise extra revenue from further welfare cuts.

Yet the new analysis also shows that - if the current deficit reduction timetable is adhered to — there’s (much) more to come. Painful though the current process is, existing plans imply a further £26bn of cuts between 2016 and 2018. This would mean either accelerating the pace of departmental cuts or introducing major new welfare cuts or tax rises. As tough as 2015-16 may be, this year’s Spending Review would merely be the calm in the eye of the storm.

What does this mean in practice for the years after 2015? Delivering the current plans without further welfare cuts or tax rises would imply speeding up departmental cuts by 50%. If health, schools and aid spending is again protected, that would imply cumulative cuts to unprotected departments by 2017-18 that begin to look implausible. Defence and the Home Office would be between one-third and one-half smaller than in 2010-11. The Foreign Office would be two-thirds smaller than it was seven years before.

This scenario would have profound implications for the role and shape of the state. Total departmental spending would have fallen 18% between 2010-11 and 17-18. Within that total, the proportion going to health would have increased from one-quarter to one-third, while spending on defence would have fallen from 10% to 8%.

Of course, the government could decide to ease post-2015-16 departmental cuts by seeking more from welfare or tax. Yet our new analysis reveals that simply keeping post-election departmental cuts to their current pace will require an extra £10bn from welfare or tax over two years. For a sense of scale, this is the equivalent of finding more in two years than will be cut from the tax credit budget in seven (£9bn). Alternatively, it would mean raising VAT from 20% to 21%. Hardly options that will help to ease the decade-long squeeze on living standards.

In reality, any post-2015 government would be likely to adopt a combination of measures. In particular, we can expect to hear more in the coming weeks and months about a potential cap on ‘structural’ aspects of Annually Managed Expenditure (AME). While both the government and the opposition have declared an intention to grapple with these aspects of spending, practical and political constraints mean their options are limited. Once we rule out the non-welfare parts of AME (e.g. debt interest payments) and politically-sensitive benefits (the state pension) that leaves less than one-third to work with. Within this envelope, housing benefit, tax credits and the employment and support allowance would appear to be in line for cuts. Determining which aspects of such payments are structural and which are cyclical will be a difficult task.

Finally, we might expect calls for cuts in pensioner benefits to intensify. Under current plans, the proportion of welfare spending accounted for by the State Pension and associated benefits is set to increase from 42% in 2010-11 to 48% in 2017-18. The government’s ‘triple lock’ means that this is a product not just of demographics, but of increased generosity per pensioner. Average pensioner payments are set to increase by 6% over the period at the same time as average working-age support declines by 15%.

Of course, we shouldn’t forget that all of these numbers depend heavily on deeply uncertain estimates of the output gap, a figure that has been revised dramatically in the past and may well be revised again. But it’s difficult to see past the likelihood that the post-election period will bring with it a new suite of difficult choices, from departmental cuts that look increasingly hard to deliver to further cuts to working-age support or the introduction of unannounced tax rises. Ultimately, we might be looking at further slippage in the deficit-reduction timetable. Don’t rule out the chance of it being all four.

Matthew Whittaker is senior economist at the Resolution Foundation

George Osborne during a visit to a branch of Lloyds bank on June 19, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Matthew Whittaker is senior economist at the Resolution 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.