Leader: We need a principled defence of the public realm and the competent state

In an attempt to achieve an economically worthless but politically valuable budget surplus, cuts to public services will continue even once the structural deficit has been eradicated – this is unworkable.

When David Cameron and George Osborne first entered office, they presented austerity as a regrettable necessity to reduce the largest budget deficit in peacetime history (11 per cent of GDP). In his 2010 New Year message, Mr Cameron said: “I didn’t come into politics to make cuts ... We’re tackling the deficit because we have to – not out of some ideological zeal. This is a government led by people with a practical desire to sort out this country’s problems, not by ideology.” But in his Lord Mayor’s banquet speech last month, he unambiguously abandoned this stance, speaking of his ambition to build a “leaner” state – “Not just now, but permanently.”

Mr Osborne’s Autumn Statement made it clear what this will entail. In an attempt to achieve an economically worthless but politically valuable budget surplus, cuts to public services will continue even once the “structural deficit” has been eradicated. The result, as the Office for Budget Responsibility stated, is that day-to-day spending will fall to 16 per cent of GDP by 2018-19, the lowest level since records began in 1948.

That this is unworkable was demonstrated by the OBR’s accompanying forecast that health, social care and education will alone account for 12.9 per cent of GDP by 2017-18, leaving just 3.1 per cent for all other services, including housing, transport, defence and the police. Unless the Chancellor intends to privatise the armed forces (defence represents 2.5 per cent of GDP) and abolish the foreign aid budget (0.7 per cent), his target will be not be met. The likelihood is that the next government, in common with all of its predecessors, will raise taxes in the year immediately following the general election. Mr Osborne may insist that the remainder of the deficit-reduction programme will be achieved through spending cuts alone, but he also stated in 2010 that he had “no plans” to raise VAT.

If the Chancellor’s vision is far-fetched, he could still achieve a dramatic reduction in the size and scope of the state’s activities.The Beveridgean model of universal welfare will be replaced by a US-style safety net designed to support only the “deserving poor”. Government will relinquish what remains of its duty to provide affordable housing and higher education, with grants for low-income students replaced by larger loans and tuition fees increased far beyond £9,000. In parts of the country, publicly-funded libraries, swimming pools, youth centres, museums and parks will cease to exist as local authority budgets are more than halved. The social-democratic state that survived the Thatcher years will truly be rolled back.

Faced with this Randian project, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have a duty to provide a principled defence of the public realm and the competent state. But in more than three years of austerity, neither has come close to doing so. Nick Clegg has pre-emptively signed his party up to further Conservative cuts until 2019, while Ed Miliband and Ed Balls have pledged to match Mr Osborne’s current spending totals in the first year of the next parliament.

A much-needed debate about how to fund the state’s activities in an age of reduced growth and stagnant living standards has not taken place. If the Chancellor’s scheduled pace of cuts is to be avoided, around £12bn of tax rises will be required. Measures such as the reintroduction of the 50p income-tax rate, or the imposition of a mansion tax (which Labour has said it would use to fund the reintroduction of the 10p tax rate) do not even come close to filling the fiscal gap.

Mr Osborne’s declaration that the welfare state is “unaffordable” is not one of fact but one of ideology, reflecting his predilection for low taxes. For a wealthy country such as Britain, there are alternative paths available. But, too often, politicians of all parties have encouraged the belief that the UK can enjoy Nordic levels of provision with US levels of taxation. If this was not the case during the boom, it is certainly not the case after the bust. Unless Labour and the Liberal Democrats are prepared to argue for a new model of the state to sustain the services that we collectively value, the danger is that voters, like Mr Osborne, will conclude that there is no alternative.

George Osborne and William Hague at the Conservative Party conference in 2011. Photo: Getty.

This article first appeared in the 12 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Power Games

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Rising crime and fewer police show the most damaging impacts of austerity

We need to protect those who protect us.

Today’s revelation that police-recorded crime has risen by 10 per cent across England and Wales shows one of the most damaging impacts of austerity. Behind the cold figures are countless stories of personal misery; 723 homicides, 466,018 crimes with violence resulting in injury, and 205,869 domestic burglaries to take just a few examples.

It is crucial that politicians of all parties seek to address this rising level of violence and offer solutions to halt the increase in violent crime. I challenge any Tory to defend the idea that their constituents are best served by a continued squeeze on police budgets, when the number of officers is already at the lowest level for more than 30 years.

This week saw the launch Chris Bryant's Protect The Protectors Private Member’s Bill, which aims to secure greater protections for emergency service workers. It carries on where my attempts in the last parliament left off, and could not come at a more important time. Cuts to the number of police officers on our streets have not only left our communities less safe, but officers themselves are now more vulnerable as well.

As an MP I work closely with the local neighbourhood policing teams in my constituency of Halifax. There is some outstanding work going on to address the underlying causes of crime, to tackle antisocial behaviour, and to build trust and engagement across communities. I am always amazed that neighbourhood police officers seem to know the name of every kid in their patch. However cuts to West Yorkshire Police, which have totalled more than £160m since 2010, have meant that the number of neighbourhood officers in my district has been cut by half in the last year, as the budget squeeze continues and more resources are drawn into counter-terrorism and other specialisms .

Overall, West Yorkshire Police have seen a loss of around 1,200 officers. West Yorkshire Police Federation chairman Nick Smart is clear about the result: "To say it’s had no effect on frontline policing is just a nonsense.” Yet for years the Conservatives have argued just this, with the Prime Minister recently telling MPs that crime was at a record low, and ministers frequently arguing that the changing nature of crime means that the number of officers is a poor measure of police effectiveness. These figures today completely debunk that myth.

Constituents are also increasingly coming to me with concerns that crimes are not investigated once they are reported. Where the police simply do not have the resources to follow-up and attend or investigate crimes, communities lose faith and the criminals grow in confidence.

A frequently overlooked part of this discussion is that the demands on police have increased hugely, often in some unexpected ways. A clear example of this is that cuts in our mental health services have resulted in police officers having to deal with mental health issues in the custody suite. While on shift with the police last year, I saw how an average night included a series of people detained under the Mental Health Act. Due to a lack of specialist beds, vulnerable patients were held in a police cell, or even in the back of a police car, for their own safety. We should all be concerned that the police are becoming a catch-all for the state’s failures.

While the politically charged campaign to restore police numbers is ongoing, Protect The Protectors is seeking to build cross-party support for measures that would offer greater protections to officers immediately. In February, the Police Federation of England and Wales released the results of its latest welfare survey data which suggest that there were more than two million unarmed physical assaults on officers over a 12-month period, and a further 302,842 assaults using a deadly weapon.

This is partly due to an increase in single crewing, which sees officers sent out on their own into often hostile circumstances. Morale in the police has suffered hugely in recent years and almost every front-line officer will be able to recall a time when they were recently assaulted.

If we want to tackle this undeniable rise in violent crime, then a large part of the solution is protecting those who protect us; strengthening the law to keep them from harm where possible, restoring morale by removing the pay cap, and most importantly, increasing their numbers.

Holly Lynch is the MP for Halifax. The Protect the Protectors bill will get its second reading on the Friday 20th October. 

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