We need investment, not cuts, to deal with our fiscal headaches

Rather than using the forecast structural surplus to pay down the national debt, the government should invest it in science, skills and childcare.

The financial crisis and subsequent downturn had a huge impact on the public finances. In two years, from 2007-08 to 2009-10, public sector net debt jumped almost twenty percentage points from 37% to 56% of GDP. So when the current government came into power, it did so promising to mend our public finances. It set itself a fiscal mandate to eliminate the structural deficit and a supplementary target to have public sector debt falling by the start of the next parliament – 2015-16.

Poor growth has made these targets hard to achieve. But finally, after years of additional cuts have been pencilled in, there is some good news ahead of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement on Thursday. Thanks to growth picking up, borrowing is looking better than expected. There are more cuts to come, but for once it’s looking likely that the government will be on track to meet the targets as set out in the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR)’s last forecast without having to find more savings. Depending on what view the OBR takes of the growth we have had, the likelihood of meeting the mandate may even have risen.

Earlier this year, the OBR expected the fiscal mandate to be met by 2016-17. But what happens after that? The OBR forecast that the structural deficit would turn into a structural surplus of £15bn in 2017-18. It’s worth stopping to think about what this means. The structural part of the current budget is the part that doesn’t change as the economy goes through its usual cycle of downturns and upturns. A zero structural surplus would mean that the government balances its books over the course of an economic cycle. A structural surplus means that it goes even further than this – allowing it to pay down national debt. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury has pointed to the ageing population as the reason for continued austerity throughout the next Parliament. This could be a reasonable strategy. But it might not be the best one.  

The OBR’s Fiscal Sustainability Report, which looks at the long-term outlook for the public finances, shows the debt-to-GDP ratio nicely falling for around a decade after 2017-18, but as the ageing population kicks in, it’s set to sharply rise again in the 2030s, driven by rising health, social care and pension costs. By the early 2060s, public sector net debt is set to hit nearly 100% of GDP.

These levels make our current problems seem rather small in comparison. And they also raise the question of whether the ageing population is something that can really be tackled through cuts alone. The OBR numbers show that if we can boost the economy’s productivity, debt wouldn’t start rising until around two decades later. But in recent years, our productivity growth has been sluggish. If it doesn’t pick up, we may even fail to meet the OBR’s central case scenario. 

So there are big gains to be had from boosting our long-term productivity. The £15bn could be used to treble the science research budget, treble our adult skills budget or introduce universal childcare, enabling more parents to go out to work – with money still left over. The choice isn’t straightforward.  The Chancellor – and future Chancellors – are facing a new trade-off, one where too little investment now could risk a huge fiscal headache in the future.

George Osborne speaks at the Conservative conference in Manchester earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.

Nida Broughton is Senior Economist at the Social Market Foundation.

Photo: Getty
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Ignored by the media, the Liberal Democrats are experiencing a revival

The crushed Liberals are doing particularly well in areas that voted Conservative in 2015 - and Remain in 2016. 

The Liberal Democrats had another good night last night, making big gains in by-elections. They won Adeyfield West, a seat they have never held in Dacorum, with a massive swing. They were up by close to the 20 points in the Derby seat of Allestree, beating Labour into second place. And they won a seat in the Cotswolds, which borders the vacant seat of Witney.

It’s worth noting that they also went backwards in a safe Labour ward in Blackpool and a safe Conservative seat in Northamptonshire.  But the overall pattern is clear, and it’s not merely confined to last night: the Liberal Democrats are enjoying a mini-revival, particularly in the south-east.

Of course, it doesn’t appear to be making itself felt in the Liberal Democrats’ poll share. “After Corbyn's election,” my colleague George tweeted recently, “Some predicted Lib Dems would rise like Lazarus. But poll ratings still stuck at 8 per cent.” Prior to the local elections, I was pessimistic that the so-called Liberal Democrat fightback could make itself felt at a national contest, when the party would have to fight on multiple fronts.

But the local elections – the first time since 1968 when every part of the mainland United Kingdom has had a vote on outside of a general election – proved that completely wrong. They  picked up 30 seats across England, though they had something of a nightmare in Stockport, and were reduced to just one seat in the Welsh Assembly. Their woes continued in Scotland, however, where they slipped to fifth place. They were even back to the third place had those votes been replicated on a national scale.

Polling has always been somewhat unkind to the Liberal Democrats outside of election campaigns, as the party has a low profile, particularly now it has just eight MPs. What appears to be happening at local by-elections and my expectation may be repeated at a general election is that when voters are presented with the option of a Liberal Democrat at the ballot box they find the idea surprisingly appealing.

Added to that, the Liberal Democrats’ happiest hunting grounds are clearly affluent, Conservative-leaning areas that voted for Remain in the referendum. All of which makes their hopes of a good second place in Witney – and a good night in the 2017 county councils – look rather less farfetched than you might expect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.