Budget 2016: No plan for the future, and no hope for Britain

Forget white heat. All that the Chancellor offered was cold despair.

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“Putting the next generation first” was George Osborne’s branding on this, his eighth budget. Young people have certainly been first in line for punishing cuts to maintenance allowances, housing and welfare, but little else. Back in August I wrote that the Labour Party must take on Osbornomics head on and challenge the narrative of perpetual austerity and the marginalisation of the state.

That remains our duty in the face of a budget that fails to answer big questions about the kind of economy that the next generation will live and work in.

As Jeremy Corbyn eloquently put it, this was a budget with social injustice at its very core.  The billions of pounds already reaped from the wholesale misery of the most vulnerable, were to be spent in the ways best designed to keep the Tories in power and Osborne heir apparent. 

Osborne clearly cannot rely upon his record to stand testimony to his abilities, he has missed every target he has set for himself, the deficit remains some £70bn above his original target, debt has skyrocketed from 53.5 per cent to more than 80 per cent of GDP and the Office of Budget Responsibility has revised downwards each of his growth forecasts. The UK has levels of child poverty and inequality that would shame most developed nations, and our productivity lags behind almost every other industrialised nation on Earth. We heard nothing about any of these. Far from solving the productivity conundrum, the OBR predicts it will fall further under Osborne’s watch.

But in trying to draw attention away from his past, he did not look to our future. Whilst Tom Watson, John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn have all been making increasing references to future technology, its challenges and opportunities, Osborne has reduced taxes on carbon fuels, abolished the carbon tax and scrapped the carbon capture scheme. The only forward looking consideration is Osborne’s leadership ambitions.

For those of us trying to get to grips with progressive change, the Fourth Machine Age is already becoming a cliché. The internet will drive this new age in the way electricity powered previous transformations. Indeed I believe the Internet of Things will change our lives more than anything since electricity. Our cities are littered with the infrastructure built by the Victorians for the first industrial revolution – huge gas holders, power stations, railways. Tomorrow’s parallels should be green fibre cabinets, phone masts, and data hubs. But without support from government – public sector investment and a regulatory regime that encourages private investment and competition - we will be building castles in the air. As Mariana Mazzucato, one of Labour’s Economic Council has ably put it, “productive capitalism is one in which business, the state, and the working population work together to create wealth.”

The record of this government on digital infrastructure is woeful: millions of homes and businesses still cannot get decent broadband (or in many cases, any broadband at all), thanks to a bungled broadband rollout which has cost our economy billions. Yet none of the mistakes of the past are to be rectified - broadband was not mentioned at all in his speech. The Budget report had just one paragraph re-announcing a broadband competition scheme, with no details of funding or timescales. The Chancellor did not speak to our creative industries. Nor digital skills. Nor the digital single market even as he attempted to shore up his own Euro-credentials.

In fact, the entire 64 minutes he was on his feet, the only mention of the future economy was a tax break for what he called “the sharing economy”, but what I would more accurately describe as the new intermediaries economy. Given so little was done to address corporate welfare, this morsel of support for private citizens taking their first step in the digital economy could be considered progress, but a budget that is forward looking would have set out how this country will create the jobs of the future in the economy to come.

We live in a world where the biggest taxi company, Uber, owns no cars; the world’s largest accommodation provider – AirBnB – owns no property, and the world’s largest media company – Facebook – owns no content.  They make millions from others’ (our) assets. If the Chancellor really wanted to put the next generation first, we would be poring over a budget that sets out how the UK will grasp the future and make it work for everyone. How will we ensure the future markets are competitive and not captured by tax-avoiding effective monopolies? How will we give people the skills to own and control the data which drives the power in the global economy and win in a jobs market where robots are workers? What should be the role of the state and how can new distributed  technologies like Blockchain help distribute social justice and equality?

Instead, the Chancellor’s forward plan is a small disempowered state with eviscerated client local government and a precariat too weak and disorganised to challenge a small, smug, leisured elite. It offers no hope for the vast majority and only the reassurance of the status quo for a lucky few. Obviously, the Chancellor made no mention of that. 

Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, and the shadow minister for industrial strategy.