Osborne's cuts will cost Britain in the long run

Through his narrow focus on making the books add up now, the Chancellor is piling up social costs for the future.

George Osborne today set out the grim departmental spending settlement for 2015-16: the year after the next general election and so, in some ways, no more than a starting point for whoever wins. Yet it is a critical baseline: whatever its political colour, if the government of the day wishes to deviate from these plans they will either need to set out how they will reallocate cuts between departments, or how they will replace these cuts by either increasing taxes or increasing borrowing. It is also likely, then, to mark a turning point in the framing of the political debate about austerity.

Unless there has been no or very little pick up in the economy by 2015, (in which case the economy is in much more serious trouble than many think) it looks increasingly likely that Labour will go into the general election with a 1997-style type pledge to match Conservative spending plans, at least on current spending. Even if that isn’t the position, all of the parties are signed up to medium-term fiscal consolidation. As the debate moves away from the here and now, and towards what happens after the next election, "too far, too fast" will become increasingly irrelevant.

This is why Miliband and Balls have shifted the debate away from the pace of deficit reduction towards starting to set out how Labour might seek to make savings. The debate is not so much about the size of the state but about how fiscal consolidation is to be achieved. There are some major flaws in the way Osborne is cutting and the centre-left should be highlighting these while still emphasising the need for medium-term cuts.

A smart corporate looking to take almost a fifth of its cost base out over an eight-year period would probably start with three principles. First, it would look right across its activities and investments to take a comparative view of what adds most value to its business, and would start by taking out the lowest-value expenditure. Second, it would take a long-term view spanning decades not months: ensuring cuts made today would not create higher costs over a ten or twenty year period. Last, it would have its best and smartest minds focused on the significant task at hand: it certainly wouldn’t be letting its top performers go, or distract its board and mid-level management with big restructures or expansion into new markets.

Osborne’s approach couldn’t be further from this sort of strategy. First, the government is not looking at what it does in the round, taking a comparative view of the value of its activities. Thus it is ring-fencing universal pensioner benefits, such as the Winter Fuel Allowance and free bus passes, some of which are paid to older people with an income far in excess of average earnings in retirement, while cutting working-age benefits and services for young people. Four out of five pounds of every welfare cut are hitting families in work, for example through cuts to childcare tax credits. Despite historically high levels of long-term youth unemployment, the Future Jobs Fund and the Education Maintenance Allowance have also been cut. The cumulative result of Osborne’s decisions, from his first emergency Budget up until today, is a big redistribution from the young to the old, further consolidating the intergenerational transfer that’s happened via the housing price bubble and shifts in pension provision away from defined benefit towards defined contriubution.

Second, Osborne is taking a short-term view, pursuing cuts that may make the books add up that year but which risk creating big long-term costs for the state. The short-sightedness of his decision to cut the Future Jobs Fund, proven to work in reducing youth unemployment, is a perfect example: the long-term costs of youth unemployment through the 'scarring' impact it has on a young person’s lifetime employment opportunities are well-established. But there are many others. Cutbacks to the early years services offered in children’s centres risk manifesting themselves in higher costs later on, for example through poorer school results and employment outcomes for the young children who no longer benefit from them. The government has forecast its increased tuition fees will save money based on some highly optimistic predictions about the rate at which graduates will pay back loans: the Higher Education Policy Institute have said the new system could actually end up costing more than the old system, despite a £9,000 a year price tag on most degrees. Some decisions will end up costing more in the even shorter term. The bedroom tax is forcing local authorities to move those who cannot afford it to more expensive bed and breakfast accommodation when there are no smaller homes available. Social care cuts simply shift the load over to the NHS as hospitals are forced to keep older people on wards longer than necessary because of a lack of community care, an even more expensive solution.

Osborne would claim that in the case of social care and children’s centres, it is local authorities choosing to make these cuts in light of their reduced settlement, not him. But if Whitehall were taking the long view it would be incentivising local government to think longer-term, for example by enacting a settlement that allows councils that do achieve long-term savings to keep a proportion to reinvest.

Last, the government certainly does not seem to be creating space for its brightest and best minds to focus on the challenge in hand without distraction. Cutting headcounts is an inevitable part of any austerity programme. But this has not been used as an opportunity to performance-manage out the poor performers. Instead, in many Whitehall departments, the best staff have taken voluntary redundancy packages and left. And the government’s misguided public service reform programme is absorbing huge amounts of energy at a time when morale is low. The NHS faces its tightest spending settlement since the Second World War: demographic pressures and social care cuts mean the ring-fence will feel very much like a cut. Yet health commissioners are focused not on the challenge at hand but on a massive structural reorganisation with no clear rationale as to why this will improve the quality of healthcare. In education, primary schools in several local authorities are being forced to become academies, getting grants of tens of thousands of pounds from central government to figure out how to recreate back-office and school improvement economies of scale. Ofsted has said this risks distracting school leaders from their core mission of improving standards at a time when cuts to children’s services are loading more onto schools.

The centre-left cannot make these sorts of critiques without saying more about how it would be cutting differently. Yet by setting out what he would do were he still Chancellor in 2015, Osborne is effectively forcing Labour onto this territory. Miliband and Balls made a good start a couple of weeks ago in making it clear universal pensioner benefits are no longer sacrosanct in light of what that means for support for young people and working families, and insetting out how a Labour government would seek to bring down the medium-term cost of social security by investing upfront in house building and encouraging businesses to pay the living wage. Eventually though, and before the next general election, Labour will need to say exactly how their plans would differ from Osborne’s; with the assumption that unless they set out more tax rises or accept higher levels of borrowing to pay for current spending, they will need to accept his cuts unless they are reapportioned elsewhere. This is what Ed Miliband signalled is to come in a recent speech: it will represent a marked shift in the tone of the political debate.

Sonia Sodha is a former policy adviser to Ed Miliband and writes in a personal capacity

George Osborne and Danny Alexander leave the Treasury for the House of Commons before the Spending Review. Photograph: Getty Images.

Sonia Sodha is head of policy and strategy at the Social Research Unit and a former senior policy adviser to Ed Miliband. She tweets @soniasodha.

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Ken Clarke: Theresa May has “no idea” what to do about Brexit

According to the former Chancellor, “nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next”.

Has Ken Clarke lost the greatest political battle of his career? He doesn’t think so. With his shoes off, he pads around his Westminster office in a striped shirt, bottle-green cords and spotty socks. Parliament’s most persistent Europhile seems relaxed. He laughs at the pervasive phrase that has issued from Downing Street since Theresa May became Prime Minister: “Brexit means Brexit.”

“A very simple phrase, but it didn’t mean anything,” he says. His blue eyes, still boyish at 76, twinkle. “It’s a brilliant reply! I thought it was rather witty. It took a day or two before people realised it didn’t actually answer the question.”

A former chancellor of the Exchequer, Clarke has served in three Conservative cabinets. His support for the European Union is well known. He has represented the seat of Rushcliffe in Nottinghamshire for 46 years, and his commitment to the European project has never wavered over the decades. It has survived every Tory civil war and even his three failed attempts to be elected Tory leader, standing on a pro-Europe platform, in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

“My political career looks as though it will coincide with Britain’s membership of the EU,” Clarke says, lowering himself into an armchair that overlooks the Thames. There are model cars perched along the windowsill – a hint of his love of motor racing.

Clarke won’t be based here, in this poky rooftop room in Portcullis House, Westminster, much longer. He has decided to step down at the next election, when he will be nearly 80. “I began by campaigning [in the 1960s] in support of Harold Macmillan’s application to enter [the EU], and I shall retire at the next election, when Britain will be on the point of leaving,” he says grimly.

Clarke supports Theresa May, having worked with her in cabinet for four years. But his allegiance was somewhat undermined when he was recorded describing her as a “bloody difficult woman” during this year’s leadership contest. He is openly critical of her regime, dismissing it as a “government with no policies”.

For a senior politician with a big reputation, Clarke is light-hearted in person – his face is usually scrunched up in merriment beneath his floppy hair. A number of times during our discussion, he says that he is trying to avoid getting “into trouble”. A painting of a stern Churchill and multiple illustrations of Gladstone look down at him from his walls as he proceeds to do just that.

“Nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next on the Brexit front,” he says. He has a warning for his former cabinet colleagues: “Serious uncertainty in your trading and political relationships with the rest of the world is dangerous if you allow it to persist.”

Clarke has seen some of the Tories’ bitterest feuds of the past at first hand, and he is concerned about party unity again. “Whatever is negotiated will be denounced by the ultra-Eurosceptics as a betrayal,” he says. “Theresa May has had the misfortune of taking over at the most impossible time. She faces an appalling problem of trying to get these ‘Three Brexiteers’ [Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox] to agree with each other, and putting together a coherent policy which a united cabinet can present to a waiting Parliament and public. Because nobody has the foggiest notion of what they want us to do.”

Clarke reserves his fiercest anger for these high-profile Brexiteers, lamenting: “People like Johnson and [Michael] Gove gave respectability to [Nigel] Farage’s arguments that immigration was somehow a great peril caused by the EU.”

During the referendum campaign, Clarke made headlines by describing Boris Johnson as “a nicer version of Donald Trump”, but today he seems more concerned about David Cameron. He has harsh words for his friend the former prime minister, calling the pledge to hold the referendum “a catastrophic decision”. “He will go down in history as the man who made the mistake of taking us out of the European Union, by mistake,” he says.

Clarke left the government in Cameron’s 2014 cabinet reshuffle – which came to be known as a “purge” of liberal Conservatives – and swapped his role as a minister without portfolio for life on the back benches. From there, he says, he will vote against the result of the referendum, which he dismisses as a “bizarre protest vote”.

“The idea that I’m suddenly going to change my lifelong opinions about the national interest and regard myself as instructed to vote in parliament on the basis of an opinion poll is laughable,” he growls. “My constituents voted Remain. I trust nobody will seriously suggest that I should vote in favour of leaving the European Union. I think it’s going to do serious damage.”

But No 10 has hinted that MPs won’t be given a say. “I do think parliament sooner or later is going to have to debate this,” Clarke insists. “In the normal way, holding the government to account for any policy the government produces . . . The idea that parliament’s going to have no say in this, and it’s all to be left to ministers, I would regard as appalling.”

Clarke has been characterised as a Tory “wet” since his days as one of the more liberal members of Margaret Thatcher’s government. It is thought that the former prime minister had a soft spot for his robust manner but viewed his left-wing leanings and pro-European passion with suspicion. He is one of parliament’s most enduring One-Nation Conservatives. Yet, with the Brexit vote, it feels as though his centrist strand of Tory politics is disappearing.

“I don’t think that’s extinct,” Clarke says. “The Conservative Party is certainly not doomed to go to the right.”

He does, however, see the rise of populism in the West as a warning. “I don’t want us to go lurching to the right,” he says. “There is a tendency for traditional parties to polarise, and for the right-wing one to go ever more to the right, and the left-wing one to go ever more to the left . . . It would be a catastrophe if that were to happen.”

Clarke’s dream of keeping the UK in Europe may be over, but he won’t be quiet while he feels that his party’s future is under threat. “Don’t get me into too much trouble,” he pleads, widening his eyes in a show of innocence, as he returns to his desk to finish his work. 

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories