George Osborne stands behind the bar during a visit to officially re-open The Red Lion pub following a major refurbishment in Westminster on February 25, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Budget 2014: behind the good economic headlines, warning lights are flashing

On half of the 20 key tests of economic success, Britain is faring very poorly.

George Osborne will come to the despatch box on Budget Day keen to trumpet the best economic figures since the start of the financial crisis. He will announce that the economy is growing, inflation is down and unemployment is falling. All true, but Osborne’s tone cannot be triumphant. The size of the economy remains smaller than in 2007 and family incomes are no higher than 2001. Worse still, behind the good headlines on recovery, warning lights are flashing for the future.

A Fabian Society report published last week set out 20 tests for economic success and found that on half of them Britain is faring very poorly, despite the recovery. We conclude that focusing just on GDP, inflation and unemployment is simply not enough. The Fabians propose that a future chancellor should abandon GDP growth as his main criteria for economic success and instead ask to be judged on growth in typical family incomes.

First, the grim news for British business: productivity has not increased since 2007, business investment is far below levels seen in the early 2000s and the gap between imports and exports is the widest since comparable records began. All of this suggests that the recovery is a more of a "dead cat bounce" than a return to long-term sustainable growth. Another measure of sustainability provides equal cause for concern: our emissions of greenhouse gases are not falling fast enough to meet carbon budgets for the rest of the decade, in spite of the sluggish economy.

The signs aren’t any better for family finances. It looks like most of the rewards from economic recovery are going to the wealthy, since the gap between the top one per cent and middle incomes is rising. Earnings remain flat, the number of families who don’t have enough to pay for the basics is up, and so too is the number of in debt. On top of all this, housing is now no more affordable than at the peak of the last boom.

So the Chancellor should really be using this Budget to confront Britain’s huge structural failings head on. We need a radical plan for national economic recovery focused on business long-termism and a fairer distribution of rewards which will ensure that consumer demand remains buoyant for decades to come. This won’t happen for as long as Osborne believes that public investment is negative, not positive. Over the weekend he proudly trailed a derisory billion pounds of extra investment, but only to be paid for by raiding existing department budgets. By contrast, Ed Balls has opened the way to borrowing for long-term investment, with his announcement on Labour’s fiscal rules at January’s Fabian New Year conference.

When it comes to fiscal matters, there may be a lot of sound and fury on Wednesday, but expect little real change. Osborne’s strategy is now pretty much locked down: the Chancellor wants to achieve an overall budget surplus and, by extension, a long-term reduction in the size of the state. If this really is the Conservative’s long-term strategy, it begs big questions about how the right intends to pay for healthcare and pensions for our ageing population and invest in skills and infrastructure for the future. This should be fertile ground for Labour to remake the case for government, but as things stand the opposition is feeling its way with great caution, burnt by the coalition’s united attacks on Labour’s public spending record before the crisis.

All this means that a net tax giveaway in the Budget would be a surprise. It would only be consistent with Osborne’s long-term plans if accompanied by yet more cuts, or if it could be justified by a significant change in the OBR’s forecast for the economy’s potential for growth. What’s much more likely is a big headline tax cut, paid for by less obvious tax rises elsewhere. Another increase in the income tax threshold will be a good response to Labour’s campaign on the "cost of living crisis". There are certainly many in Labour ranks who worry that in the run up to the general election, the promise of highly visible tax cuts will trump Ed Miliband’s more targeted efforts to address the living standards crisis through regulation.

For policy purists, an increase in the income tax threshold isn’t terribly sensible. Far better to reduce National Insurance for low paid workers. But it has acquired totemic significance for the coalition. Similarly, the argument over a 50p top rate of tax has acquired political weight far beyond the revenue raising or economic impacts of the policy. Labour knows it is on the right side of public opinion, but it is hardly the best way of designing taxation to ensure the rich pay more.

Privately, all the parties know that the tax system badly needs a much bigger overhaul. This needs to encompass the balance of tax between old and new economy; rich and poor; young and old; and between earnings, income, property and wealth. On top of all that we may well need more green taxes, despite the protests we can expect from the public and manufacturers.

But the annual spectacle of Budget showmanship is the wrong way to think through such major reforms. It is another example of the short-termist, confrontational politics that fails Britain. Whoever comes to power in 2015 should relegate the importance of the Budget and introduce institutional arrangements that force politicians to think ahead five years: Britain needs a long-term national strategy for sustainable growth and an independent review to design radical tax reforms.

Andrew Harrop is general secretary of the Fabian Society.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Why Chris Grayling is Jeremy Corbyn's secret weapon

The housing crisis is Labour's best asset - and Chris Grayling is making it worse. 

It feels like the classic Conservative story: wait until the election is over, then cancel spending in areas that have the temerity to vote Labour. The electrification of rail routes from Cardiff to Swansea – scrapped. So too is the electrification of the Leeds to Manchester route – and of the Midland main line.

But Crossrail 2, which runs from north to south across London and deep into the capital's outer satellites, including that of Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, will go ahead as planned.

It would be grim but effective politics if the Conservatives were pouring money into the seats they won or lost narrowly. There are 25 seats that the Conservatives can take with a swing of 1 per cent from Labour to Tory, and 30 seats that they would lose with a swing of 1 per cent from Tory to Labour.

It wouldn’t be at all surprising if the Conservatives were making spending decisions with an eye on what you might call the frontline 55. But what they’re actually doing is taking money away from north-west marginal constituencies – and lavishing cash on increasingly Labour London. In doing that, they’re actually making their electoral headache worse.

How so? As I’ve written before, the biggest problem for the Conservatives in the long term is simply that not enough people are getting on the housing ladder. That is hurting them in two ways. The first is straightforward: economically-driven voters are not turning blue when they turn 30 because they are not either on or about to mount the first rungs of the housing ladder. More than half of 30-year-olds were mortgage-payers in 1992, when John Major won an unexpected Conservative majority, while under a third were in 2017, when Theresa May unexpectedly lost hers.

But it is also hurting them because culturally-driven voters are getting on the housing ladder, but by moving out of areas where Labour’s socially-concerned core vote congregates in great numbers, and into formerly safe or at least marginal Conservative seats. That effect has reached what might be its final, and for the Conservatives, deadly form in Brighton. All three of the Brighton constituencies – Hove, Brighton Kemptown and Brighton Pavilion – were Conservative-held in 1992. Now none of them are. In Pavilion they are third, and the smallest majority they have to overcome is 9,868, in Kemptown. The same effect helped reduce Amber Rudd’s majority in Hastings, also in East Sussex, to 346.

The bad news for the Conservatives is that the constituencies of Crawley, Reading, Swindon and in the longer-term, Bracknell, all look like Brightons in the making: although only Reading East fell to Labour this time, all saw swings bigger than the national average and all are seeing increasing migration by culturally-driven left-wing voters away from safe Labour seats. All are seeing what you might call “Hackneyfication”: commuters moving from inner city seats but taking their politics with them.

Add to that forced migration from inner London to seats like Iain Duncan Smith’s in Chingford – once a Conservative fortress, now a razor-thin marginal – and even before you add in the appeal of Jeremy Corbyn’s person and platform, the electoral picture for the Conservatives looks bleak.

(It should go without saying that voters are driven by both economics and culture. The binary I’ve used here is simplistic but helpful to understand the growing demographic pressures on the Conservatives.)

There is actually a solution here for the Tories. It’s both to build more housing but also to rebalance the British economy, because the housing crisis in London and the south is driven by the jobs and connectivity crisis in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Or, instead, they could have a number of measures designed to make London’s economy stride still further ahead of the rest, serviced by 5 per cent mortgages and growing numbers of commuter rail services to facilitate a growing volume of consumers from London’s satellite towns, all of which only increase the electoral pressures on their party. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.