George Osborne during a visit to the Royal Mint in Llantrisant, Wales. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Under the bonnet of the UK's economic recovery all is not well

To resign ourselves to a return to the economic pathologies of the past, as the Tories do, would be to miss a historic opportunity.

Last month, the OBR confirmed that Britain is now experiencing growth of over 2 per cent. After the slowest recovery from a recession on record – partly because of the depth of the impact of the crash, partly because of the fiscal austerity chosen by this government – we should all welcome this news, whatever our views on economic policy or our party affiliations. To do otherwise is not simply churlish: it is self-defeating for those who want to make the case that there are serious problems with the UK economy, and with the policy choices this government is making. And I think there are some very serious problems.

To see what the problems are, you need to look under the bonnet of the UK recovery. Firstly, it is a recovery predominantly fuelled by consumption, more than any other major economy. Where is this consumption coming from? Partly from the expansion of household debt, which reached a record high at the end of 2013. And partly from people running down their savings to spend more. Between January 2012 and December 2013, the UK savings ratio went from 8 per cent of GDP to 5.4 per cent. Germans save nearly twice as much as that. 

Secondly, it is a recovery of an economy that is relatively inefficient. Our productivity has gone from bad to worse since the crash, and is now about 20 per cent below the average of our G7 competitors. This year, Britain’s trade deficit is predicted to rise to the highest level of any industrial country in 2014, its highest level for a quarter of a century. And what about investment? As a share of GDP, investment in the UK economy dropped by a quarter in the five years after 2008. We now rank 159th in the world, just behind Paraguay and Mali.  

Thirdly, it is a recovery whose benefits are being felt by a very few, not by the broad majority. And not any old "very few" either. City bonuses are predicted to be 15 per cent up on last year. Meanwhile, average earnings are £1,600 a year lower than at the last election, and earnings will only have grown by half the level of the overall economy by the next election. The median household has seen their income drop by nearly 4 per cent since the recession. In our country, the poorest 40 per cent have the lowest share of national wealth of any western country.  

However you cut it, our economy has a problem in the engine room. We are too dependent on housing and debt for family incomes, too dependent on consumption rather than saving and investment, too dependent on an under-skilled workforce, and too dependent on low-wage and insecure jobs.  

But let’s be honest about these problems. They are not being addressed by this government, but they were not caused by it either. Nor are they problems that will be rectified in one policy heave, but instead require a determination to address them over a number of years. The question is: what is to be done?

This is where a clear choice between Labour and the Conservatives starts to emerge. The Conservatives’ answer has two parts. First, to say that the return of growth is the definition of economic success. Second, to double down on the economic model created after 1979. In George Osborne’s view, there is no point trying to reform the way our economy works. It is what it is. The role of government is to feed the low-wage, low-skill monster.  

That’s why the Tories prioritise further labour market deregulation in an economy that is among the most deregulated in the OECD. It’s why they want to revisit UK membership of the Social Chapter, 20 years on from the last debate about it. It is why they refuse to tackle zero-hours contracts. It is why they are happy to subsidise demand for housing yet preside over historically low levels of housebuilding activity. It is an approach based on the policy recipes of the 1980s and 1990s. And it won’t fix what doesn’t work.

The response of Labour under Ed Miliband’s leadership is different. We refuse to accept that there is nothing to be done about the snapping of the link between the fortunes of the economy and those of working people. Britain's problems with productivity, competitiveness and living standards are interconnected, and demand a thoroughgoing reform of how our economy works. That’s why Ed Miliband has said that the government he leads will prioritise a transformation of our banking system, resetting the energy market, a new target of building 200,000 new homes a year, a revolution in apprenticeships and technical education in our schools, and a historic transfer of many of the levers of economic policy from Whitehall to city regions and county-regions.

The easy response to the return of growth after such a long wait is to say that this agenda for fundamental reform is both too difficult and unnecessary. I strongly believe that would be a mistake. As Britain emerges from the most devastating and prolonged downturn of the past 100 years, to resign ourselves to a return to the economic pathologies of the past would be to miss a historic opportunity. As long as Britain’s international ranking on skills, investment and productivity is so low, and on inequality, centralisation and poverty so high, there will be a need for a government that sets itself the defining challenge of reforming the way our economy works. That is the challenge that Ed Miliband will meet.

Stewart Wood (Lord Wood of Anfield) is shadow cabinet minister without portfolio and an adviser to Ed Miliband in the leader's office

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”