Ed Balls and George Osborne attend the State Opening of Parliament on May 8, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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How Labour can trump Osborne's pensions reforms

A state annuity scheme would improve the public finances, provide financial security and raise living standards.

When the hardline conference motions used to roll in calling for the nationalisation of the top 200 industries, John Smith would jest that we should replace the term "industries" with "chip shops". These days there are few opportunities for such humour in the Labour Party, but sometimes this means Labour avoids advocating an obvious state solution, even when it represents much better value than a typical annuity.

George Osborne’s Budget pension reforms are, in fact, a case in point. No one can doubt that locking pensioners into poor value annuities was no longer tenable. Giving those reaching retirement age greater freedom to make their own investment and spending decisions also makes plenty of sense. The concern is that the risks associated with such freedoms may result in some pensioners falling back on the state later in life. This not only means many living out their final years in penury but also the taxpayer having to find extra funds to cover social care or benefits such as housing benefit.
 
The Conservatives want to suggest that those who raise fears about the personal and fiscal consequences of Osborne’s reforms are accusing pensioners of being bad people, stupid and irresponsible to the core.  But did we accuse working age people of irresponsibility when we introduced opt-out defined contributions pensions for all?
 
The problem is a simple one: someone reaching retirement does not know how long they will live, and many underestimate how long they will. Someone who turns 65 this year will, on average, live to 85 (84 for a man and 86 for a woman) and annuities, for all their faults, take away the risk of failing to judge your life expectancy correctly.                    
 
The solution is equally simple. While continuing to offer retirees the freedom to pay down a mortgage, buy a Lamborghini or even a chip shop, the state should offer its own annuity. It has a vested interest in doing so because it will pick up the tab if Osborne turns out to be less prescient than he would have us believe. The state can offer value for money because it does not have to make a profit. If the state were raising funds through the bond market it would pay out a perfectly respectable interest rate, currently somewhat above 2.5 per cent for a 10 year bond. On this basis, someone investing £100,000 in a state annuity would be likely to do better by about £12,000 over a remaining 20 years of life than with a private sector annuity.
 
Indeed, because of the potential risk to the public finances the state may want to be more generous than this.  All it needs is clear and transparent actuarial calculations and payments could be made with those for the state pension. The insurance industry would howl but it would have little cause for complaint because the market failure is obvious and Osborne has already driven a stake through its less than generous heart. Besides, the state would not be a monopoly but act as a competitor to the private sector: as a spur to efficiency and innovation. And with a state annuity, freedom would be underpinned by security.  
 
Many suspect Osborne of alighting upon his pensions reform with more than a thought given to the short-term fillip to the public finances, as the newly retiring enjoy their unexpected freedom, and with little regard for the long-term impact on the public finances. A state annuity has the potential to provide a very substantial medium-term boost to the public finances while simultaneously warding off a potential fiscal time bomb. If the state annuity was sensibly generous, and the default position for three quarters of a pension pot, with retirees (anyone 55 or older) having to opt-out rather than opt-in to the state annuity, as many as half or more of those reaching retirement might take up the states offer and use their pension pot to pay for a guaranteed lifetime income.
 
With roughly 650,000 people becoming eligible in a year, and an average pension pot of close to £30,000, if half of retirees used three quarters of their pot (the remaining quarter being taken as a tax-free lump sum) to buy a state annuity, the public finances would be better off by around £7bn in the first year and still better off each year for many years to come. Over the lifetime of a parliament, the public finances might be boosted by as much as £30bn. Of course, there is a debate to be had about how we treat this on the public books, but without doubt the impact on the government’s finances would be exceedingly positive in the early years.
 
Where else can Labour so readily demonstrate that it can improve the public finances, provide financial security and raise living standards? And all this without nationalising any chip shops.

Nick Pecorelli is Associate Director of The Campaign Company

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder