George Osborne, Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, delivered his Autumn Statement yesterday. This is a very British piece of political theatre, delivered by somebody with a very theatrically British job title, that adds up to “Finance Minister”. In the statement Mr Osborne announced financial plans for the next five years of the Conservative government. It is a set-piece event designed to score political points and attract good publicity. The dust has not had time to settle, but some important issues are clear.
The main headlines were these: the government dropped the central part of its plans to reduce tax credits to top up the incomes of people working on low pay. It also withdrew plans to cut police budgets. Various other goodies were doled out; schools had their budget protected in real rather than nominal terms; there was more money for the NHS, and various investment projects. This was all part of a familiar game of managing expectations, which Mr Osborne now handles with competence. The reversal on police cuts was particularly well managed. The short-term politics has worked very well for the government, helped by the Labour opposition spokesman John McDonnell’s misjudged stunt using Chairman Mao’s Red Book.
But let’s step back a bit. The first point to make is that this exercise is one of completely false precision. The justification for a greatly reduced level of cuts to departmental spending (according to the FT’s Martin Wolf, from £41.9bn in pre-election March, to £15.6bn in post-election July to £7bn now) was a £27bn reduction in 2020’s projected borrowing. This £27bn figure is widely reported in the media, but it is nearly meaningless. It is based on economic forecasts which have almost no chance of being fulfilled – though at least they are produced independently by the Office for Budget Responsibility. That £27bn can appear out of nowhere in four months simply reflects this imprecision; it can disappear just as quickly. Personally I feel that the projection of a steady 2% plus of GDP growth, which underlies this forecast, is most unlikely to be fulfilled; it is an artefact of a deeply flawed process of economic modelling that still has a grip on conventional economics, because nobody has found a substitute.
So this needs to be taken in a broader strategic context. The government has two stated economic aims for the medium term. The first is that the state should run a surplus in the middle of the business cycle; the second is that overall government spending should be cut to about 37% of national income- low by postwar standards. Both are entirely arbitrary. There is a good case for a government deficit to fund investment, especially if the private sector is reluctant to invest its profits, which has been the story of the 21st Century so far. There is no convincing evidence that I know of to suggest that a lower level of government expenditure is more economically efficient.
But all this makes more sense if you think about the politics rather than the economics. And here the Statement was balancing long and short term aims. The long term aim is to crush an ecosystem of political bureaucrats in central and local government, and a range of agencies, consultancies and NGOs that hover around them. This is the principal power base of the Labour Party, and flourished mightily under the patronage of Mr Osborne’s predecessor but one, Gordon Brown. What is set to replace it is series of soulless, hollowed out agencies that are as easy to deal with as modern big businesses like phone companies (BT, TalkTalk, Virgin Media, etc) that are unable to manage complexity, so try to deny that it exists. The government’s new Universal Credit system is shaping up to be just such a nightmare. I see both sides of the argument here. I hate the old Labour bureaucracy and its hangers on with a passion, and I am not sorry to see it being dismantled (though a lot of excellent professional services are going too). But its hollowed out replacement lacks credibility, and at will be a partial solution at best.
The difficulties with this Conservative dystopia are apparent in the short-term politics. Welfare, security, health, education and social care are proving politically highly resistant, and hence the retreats evident in Mr Osborne’s statement. The Conservative fight to crush the opposition Labour and Lib Dems is going very well. But this is in large part due to Labour’s ineptitude. What if it woke up and led a serious fightback?.
The Conservatives’ drive to cut government budgets leaves them politically exposed. They stand a real chance of shutting Labour out of power for generations, but only if they secure the votes the working class and and the less secure middle classes. The changes to tax credits would have made these voters very angry. Mr Osborne’s U-turn is unsurprising – but leaves the question of how he managed to get into the mess in the first place. Meanwhile added demands of an ageing population on health and social care services is a challenge that will not go away. The extra funds found for these are unlikely to be equal to the challenge. And the problem of an economy polarising between low and high wages, while housing costs are escalating, is placing huge stress on welfare.
The hollowing out of the state at both national and local levels will continue apace. But a weaker than expected economy, and mounting pressure on health and social care services are likely to break Mr Osborne’s plans eventually. Whether the political opposition, outside Scotland, will be in any shape to exploit this situation remains open to doubt, however.