In the aftermath of the Greek referendum, the threat of instability in the Eurozone reminds us that Britain cannot insulate itself from global economic forces. So we need this week’s Budget to help build a more resilient economy – securing our public finances, productivity and competitiveness.
Tony Blair and Gordon Brown rightly kept us out of the single currency that was supposed to deliver stability – but is currently creating the opposite. Yet we would be naïve to think that disruption on our doorstep will not have consequences at home. In Europe and at the IMF the British Prime Minister and Chancellor should be arguing for a new deal for Greece, including proper restructuring of the Greek economy but also more time and greater debt write-downs. Without this, more austerity is simply going to deliver higher unemployment, lower output, and deeper deficits.
But uncertainty abroad also underscores the importance of securing our position at home.
Before the 2007 global financial crisis hit, Britain’s national debt was less than 40 per cent of GDP. Today it is more than 80 per cent. It will be the work of this, and future, parliaments to get it back to sustainable pre-crisis levels. This is not only so we can withstand external shocks, it is also essential for ending a situation where annual debt interest payments are set to exceed £50bn a year – more taxpayers’ money going to bondholders every year than we pay to the teachers in our schools or the nurses in our hospitals. We must deal with our debt precisely so we can release resources for the public services we believe in and the infrastructure our economy needs.
Labour is committed to this task. But we will need to be clearer than we were at the last election about a timetable for getting the deficit down and set a target for when we would get the national debt back to pre-crisis levels. The approach Labour committed to before the election could have seen debt still above 65 per cent in 2030. We must admit the mistakes of the past, and be clear that while spending on public services did not cause the financial crisis, the deficit that we were running when the shock hit meant we weren’t as prepared as we should have been. Andy Burnham understands this, and this is exactly why I am backing him for Leader of the Labour Party. Looking forward, we should commit to run a surplus when the economy is growing at or above its historic average rate, allowing us to bring the debt down more quickly. And the Office for Budget Responsibility should be the independent arbiter of the government’s progress in this.
Getting our debt down as a share of GDP means cutting departmental spending as well as driving efficiency across all our public services. But crucially, it also means building a more productive and inclusive economy, raising earnings and reducing reliance on benefits and tax credits.
Early in the last Parliament, George Osborne promised to “rebalance the economy” with a “march of the makers”. But since then we have seen productivity stagnate, our current account deficit rise to record levels, and a fragile recovery that remains too reliant on household borrowing and which has yet to be felt in many parts of the country.
The underlying weaknesses and imbalances in our economy pose no less a risk to our future stability and prosperity than the unsustainable state of our public finances. We need a Budget that rises to both challenges.
Take social security spending, Labour supports the principle of a benefit cap to ensure our welfare system is fair, affordable and rewards hard work. But to make significant savings from social security we need a Budget to create more productive, high skilled, better paid jobs. Without this, cutting away support for low-paid workers, as this government plans, risks weakening work incentives and deepening the division and disadvantage that prevent us making the most of our country’s potential.
Now is not the time to be timid, now is the time to be bold and so on Wednesday, the Chancellor should announce an increase in the minimum wage. And with five million people paid less than living wage, there should be tax breaks for firms who will pay the living wage, better use of government procurement and a requirement on companies to report on whether they pay the living wage so consumers can vote with their purses and wallets.
And crucially, this week’s budget needs to back the entrepreneurs and employers who create jobs – rewarding innovation and investment, improving access to finance, and doing what it takes to secure the research base, skilled workforce and world class infrastructure businesses need.
With a focus on economic credibility, constructive engagement with business and a bold plan for technical education and skills, Andy has shown that he gets this – and the need for Labour to lead the debate over Britain’s economic future.
That’s why I am pleased to be co-chairing Andy’s Business Panel which launched last week alongside Graham Cole, chair of Augusta Westland, and Shabir Randeree, Chair of DCD group. This week the panel met for the first time to start the conversation in which we will work to engage businesses of all shapes and sizes throughout the country – so that Labour can best understand what businesses need to create the jobs and opportunities to grow our economy.
Dealing decisively with the deficit and the debt are essential to good economic management, but so is a strategy to raise the productivity of our workforce and the competitiveness of our businesses. If this week’s budget does not rise to this twin challenge, we in the Labour Party must show that we can.