Borrowing is much higher than it should be. Photo: Getty
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Government borrowing: the numbers don’t add up

There is less scope in the years ahead for our current levels of borrowing to be eliminated by further economic growth. 

Friday’s public spending figures brought some small comfort to the Chancellor. In September, borrowing for the year was 10 per cent higher than the previous year; the gap has now narrowed to 6 per cent. But that is very small comfort indeed when borrowing was supposed to fall by around 12 per cent this year.

The initial signs looked good: GDP growth for 2014 is expected to come in at around 3 per cent, higher than the OBR forecast back in March. But poor wage growth has continued to hold tax receipts down. The result is that borrowing is much higher than it should be. 

At the same time, economic forecasters are putting the higher than expected growth down to a faster recovery rather than an improvement in the underlying health of the economy. This means that there is less scope in the years ahead for our current levels of borrowing to be eliminated by further economic growth. 

This has serious consequences for fiscal targets in the next parliament. The Conservatives have said that if they win the next election, they would seek to generate an overall surplus by 2018-19. 

On the plans set out back in March, that looked feasible. With £38bn of cuts to government departments after 2015-16, the OBR forecast that by 2018-19, the next government would have eliminated borrowing and would in fact be running a surplus of just over £1 billion. 

The SMF’s calculations, based on the latest economic forecasts, shows that this is no longer likely to be the case. Instead, even with the £38bn of cuts, borrowing will still be at around £14bn. To hit their targets, the Conservatives would have to bring the total cuts after 2015-16 to £52bn.

Since 2010, the deadline for completing the deficit reduction programme has had to be repeatedly postponed. In large part, thisis because the state of the economy has disappointed. In the next parliament, as with this one, the performance of the economy will make the difference between success and failure in meeting any of the main political parties’ fiscal targets. If, for example, it were possible to repeat the sustainable growth era of the early 2000s, the need for further cuts after 2015-16 would disappear. By contrast, if we see a repeat of poor underlying productivity growth seen in recent years, the size of the cuts required could balloon.

The next government must have an ambitious plan to boost long-term growth, and repairing the UK economy must be seen and treated as an integral part of any public spending strategy. This means that areas of spending that have growth enhancing-benefits must be prioritised.

The spending cuts programme was expected to be over in time for the 2015 general election. Instead, the next incoming government will have an even bigger challenge on its hands than in 2010: making further fierce cuts to spending when the easiest savings have already been made.

Nida Broughton is Chief Economist at the Social Market Foundation 

Nida Broughton is Senior Economist at the Social Market Foundation.

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.