Why the return of growth doesn't prove that Balls was wrong

The shadow chancellor never said that there would be no recovery, only that it would be painfully slow. And he was right.

When the GDP figures are published tomorrow morning at 9:30am, the cry will go up from the Tories and their media allies that Ed Balls's credibility has been destroyed. They might not like Ed Miliband, but they reserve a special animus for the shadow chancellor. For them, the return of growth proves that Balls's critique of George Osborne's austerity programme was fundamentally wrong; Labour will not be taken seriously until he is thrown overboard. 

If Balls is such a liability to his party, one wonders why so many Conservatives exert so much energy calling for his departure (the answer, as some privately acknowledge, is that he is one of Labour's greatest assets). But put this Machiavellian gamesmanship to one side, the claim that it is Osborne, not Balls, who has been vindicated doesn't bear scrutiny. 

Contrary to the right, Balls never said that there would be no recovery, only that it would be painfully slow. On this point he was entirely right. The return of growth after three years of stagnation is nothing to celebrate. As Balls writes today, "we would need 1.4 per cent growth in each and every quarter between now and the election simply to catch up all the ground lost since 2010." Even if we learn tomorrow that the economy grew by 1% in the third quarter, output will still be 2.3% below its pre-recession peak. In the US, by contrast, where the Obama administration maintained fiscal stimulus, the economy is 3.2% larger than in 2007. Growth of 1% in Q3 would mean that the economy has expanded by just 2.8% since autumn 2010, compared to the 7.7% forecast by the OBR. 

Not all of this can be blamed on Osborne. The continued fragility of the banking sector, the rise in global commodity prices and the eurozone crisis have all constrained growth. But it is precisely for these reasons that wise minds counselled the Chancellor against austerity. As Balls warned in his celebrated Bloomberg speech in 2010, Osborne was "ripping out the foundations of the house just as the hurricane is about to hit". Hippocrates’s injunction to "first, do no harm" should have been his watchword. Instead, with the private sector already contracting, he chose to tighten the squeeze. We are still paying the price today. The double-dip may have been revised away (growth was 0% in Q1 2012 rather than -0.1%; only an economic illiterate would celebrate that) but the austerians didn't only  promise that Britain would avoid another recession, they promised, in the words of Osborne's first Budget, "a steady and sustained economic recovery". What we got was the slowest recovery for more than 100 years. 

Then there is the claim that Labour is only now talking about living standards in a desperate attempt to distract attention from the macroeconomy. As Tim Montgomerie writes in today's Times, "The Opposition won’t acknowledge the recovery but it’s interesting to note what Labour politicians have stopped saying. Ed Balls isn’t talking about a double dip any more. Ed Miliband isn’t calling for the abandonment of Plan A. Labour has moved the goalposts and now talking about the cost of living crisis — a genuine challenge but a different one."

Yet it was on the day after his election as Labour leader that Ed Miliband first used the phrase "the squeezed middle" and it was in February 2011, a few weeks after being appointed as shadow chancellor, that Balls first spoke of a "cost of living crisis". Three months later, in a speech at the LSE, he argued: 

[T]he test for the Treasury isn't just whether they can post better growth rates - we all know the economy will return to stronger growth eventually - it's whether they can make up all this lost ground in jobs and living standards

It is precisely because the recovery has been so weak that real wages have fallen for the longest peirod since 1870. As Osborne himself noted in his conference speech, the cost of living cannot be detached from "the performance of the economy". Rising GDP is no longer a guarantee of rising wages (the point Labour is rightly emphasising) but the near-absence of growth for three years explains why British workers have suffered more than most. Since mid-2010, average hourly wages have fallen by 5.5%, a faster rate of decline than every EU country except Portugal, the Netherlands and Greece. For Osborne to now lecture others on the importance of growth to living standards takes chutzpah to a new level. Wages have fallen for 39 of the 40 months that Osborne has sat in the Treasury (the exception being April 2013 when deferred bonuses were paid out following the abolition of the 50p tax rate).

The living standards crisis wasn't an unavoidable coincidence of the lack of growth, but an inevitable consequence. Before the Tory spin machine whirls into action tomorrow, it's worth remembering this. 

Ed Balls and George Osborne attend the State Opening of Parliament, in the House of Lords at the Palace of Westminster in London May 8, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.