Friday, 29 May 2015

What can we expect from renewed austerity?

By Michael Burke*

The new Tory government will renew its austerity offensive shortly with the publication of an ‘emergency Budget’ on July 8. It is simple to demonstrate that the previous austerity programme caused the economy to grind to a halt (and with it the improvement in government finances).

Supporters of austerity like to claim that austerity led eventually to recovery. But this is logically impossible. A force applied from one direction, the downward pressure on the economy, cannot sequentially have the effect of lifting the economy. Most children learn these cause and effect relationships through play at the ages of 2 to 4, with marbles, wheels and water.

Therefore the actual course of events of the last round of austerity will prove instructive as to what can be expected in the next 5 years. This has important political as well as economic implications.

Anyone tempted to throw in their lot with Tory economic policy, for example among the Labour leadership contenders, will be obliged to defend the impact of Tory austerity. As there is no solid basis for the current ‘recovery’ which is supported by increasing household debt and borrowing from overseas, the inevitable bust will occur. The ‘Barber boom’, the ‘Lawson boom’ both ended with a slump, and the feeble Osborne recovery reproduces them in a worse environment.

According to the IFS the Tory Government plans imply £45bn of ‘fiscal tightening’ in this parliament equivalent to 4.1% of GDP, although we have yet to see the actual plans of the emergency Budget in June. This is approximately equivalent to the fiscal tightening of the last parliament although it is suggested that all of it will be achieved with cuts to public spending rather than in combination with tax increases as previously. The axe will fall heavier this time.

The previous programme of austerity caused a double-dip recession in most sectors of the economy. The economy had been growing at a very modest pace of 2.1% in the 4 quarters before the last Coalition took office. The double-dip recession in production, construction and agriculture is shown in Fig.1 below. Only services continued to grow.

It is notable too that industrial production (including manufacturing plus energy) is still below the level the Coalition government inherited in 2010. No industrialised economy can sustain growth without growth in industrial production, as the label implies.

Fig.1 Most Sectors Experienced A Double-Dip Recession
Source: ONS

In real terms there was no growth in Government consumption spending in both 2010 and 2011. This turned a modest recovery back close towards recession, only saved by the growth of the service sector in 2012 plus the Olympics effect.

We have already seen how austerity caused a sharp renewed slowdown in the economy as a whole. There is no logic to claim that austerity also led to eventual recovery. Instead, as Tory poll ratings plunged after the ‘omnishambles Budget’ and the economy risked falling back into outright recession, Government policy was changed. There were no new Government spending cuts from 2012 onwards. Government consumption was allowed to grow and the austerity offensive was put hold (Fig.2).

Fig.2 Real GDP & Government Consumption



Table1. Real GDP Growth Real Govt Consumption Growth
Source: ONS

The result of increased Government consumption was a modest expansion. Real GDP grew by 2.8% in the pre-election year of 2014. But this was little more than the 2.1% growth achieved in the year prior to the imposition of austerity. Over the 5-year period 2010 to 2014 real GDP growth has averaged just 0.75%. This is exceptionally weak by historical standards and is striking after a sharp recession, when the usual pattern is for a more rapid recovery. GDP growth has only matched the growth of the population so that per capita GDP has stagnated. Under these circumstances living standards cannot rise.

Investment

However, there is no such thing as a consumption-led recovery. It too is a logical impossibility. Economies are dominated by production. As the proportion of GDP devoted to consumption rises, economic growth tends towards zero. The reverse is also true; as the proportion of GDP devoted to investment rises, so GDP growth increases (including the growth of consumption within that).

Without production, the expansion of which relies on investment, consumption can only be increased by further borrowing.

One of the central fallacies of Tory economic ideology is the idea that by shrinking the state the private sector will thrive. As Government is the largest single customer of the private sector goods and services, the opposite is the case. Cutting public spending damages the private sector and exacerbates its weakness.

Cutting public investment has been a central part of austerity and a key way that government spending has fallen overall. The deficit has fallen by damaging future growth.

This has been the effect of the previous round of austerity. The entire crisis was caused by the slump in business investment, which caused unemployment to rise and Government tax revenues to fall (hence the rise in the deficit). The weakness of business investment can be seen as early as 2006 (Fig.3) and in the sharp decline again in 2008.

Fig.3 Business Investment & Government Investment
Source: ONS

Under the Labour Government investment was increased in 2008 and 2009 to offset a crisis caused by this private sector weakness (Building Schools for the Future, bringing forward planned capital infrastructure projects, etc.).

The Coalition slashed Government investment. The effect was predictable. The recovery in private sector investment was halted. It is only in 2014 with a pre-election rise in Government investment did business investment begin to accelerate again.

If the Tory government attempts to close the deficit by cutting its own investment, or acts on the belief that the private sector will deliver better and more investment in public services, then the effect will be the same once more. Business investment will be cut again. There is no ‘productivity puzzle’. Without investment productivity cannot grow and living standards cannot rise.

‘Welfare’

The Tory Government has also announced plans for further cuts in social security. 64% of all households are in receipt of one type of social security benefit or another, over 20 million households. They, we are the majority.

The previous Coalition Government managed to remove somewhere between 1 million and 2 million households from entitlements that were in receipt of small sums. Most of those of working age in receipt of benefits are actually working. Either their pay and/or their hours are too little to subsist on wages alone. A large proportion of these are single parents.

The Tory party and a supportive media have waged a relentless campaign against ‘welfare scroungers’ in ‘benefits Britain’. The reality is that this is the majority, whose general welfare and wellbeing benefits us all. Not only do cuts in entitlement cause enormous hardship to millions, it actually hits everyone economically. ‘Presenteeism’, being at work but not engaged with it through insecurity or concern for childcare of healthcare responsibilities is widespread and on one estimate is said to depress the economy by £15 billion.

Entitlement to benefits is a function of low pay, disability, old age, poverty and excessive rents. Britain has one of the lowest levels of social security protection among richer industrialised economies. Britain spends 0.4% of GDP on unemployment benefits compared to 1% for the OECD average. In contrast, Britain spends 1.5% of GDP on housing benefits where the benefit goes to landlords while the OECD average is just 0.4%.


Table 2. Social Protection Expenditures As A Proportion of GDP %
Source: OECD


A recent report by Shelter shows that the annual subsidy to private landlords amounts to £14bn, which is greater than the planned welfare cuts. The cuts to welfare will cause enormous human misery. Cutting the handout to landlords would remove incentives for buy-to-let and so act as a brake on the upward spiral in rent and property prices.

In the wider picture, the deficit will soon fall to around £85bn annually and below. Handouts to the corporate sector (tax breaks and incentives) amount to £85bn annually. The entire deficit could be removed by ending this corporate welfare without any of the damaging cuts planned. This alone would address the question of the deficit. But for sustainable growth, public sector-led investment is required.


*This is a slightly modified version of a recent presentation for Labour Against Austerity in the House of Commons

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Did New Labour spend too much?

By Michael Burke

It is not sufficient for big business to have secured an election victory and an overall Parliamentary majority for the Tory Party. It is also necessary to intervene in the Labour Party to ensure that its leadership also conforms to big business interests too. This has currently taken the form of candidates in the leadership contest being asked to declare that Labour ‘spent too much’ in the run-up into the Great Recession. Answering Yes to this question is effectively a loyalty oath to big business interests, a renunciation even of the social democratic vestige of economic policy under New Labour.

The question is economically illiterate. It is taken as axiomatic that if there was a deficit that spending must have been too high. But all deficits are composed of two items; spending and income. In the case of government that income arises mainly in the form of taxes. It does not follow from the existence of a deficit that the culprit must be spending.

The reality is that measured as a proportion of GDP New Labour spent less on average than Margaret Thatcher. This is shown in Fig. 1 below. On average New Labour’s spending amounted to 41.5% of GDP. By comparison, under Thatcher government spending was 44.2%. In relation to the deficit, the taxation levels were also very different. Under New Labour taxation revenues were on average 37.5% of GDP. Under Thatcher taxation revenues amounted to 42.0% of GDP.

Fig.1 Government spending and revenues as a proportion of GDP

The argument that Labour spent too much has no factual basis whatsoever. The loyalty test of renouncing the ‘overspend’ is based on a complete fiction. In fact, because it was in thrall to neoliberal economics, it is clear that New Labour taxed too little.

Under New Labour the main rate of corporation tax on profits was cut from 34% to 28%. ‘Taper relief’ on capital gains was introduced which cut the tax rate on capital gains (CGT) from 40% to 24%. This system was later scrapped and the rate cut to 18% by Alistair Darling. Owners of assets therefore paid a far lower tax rate than the tax on workers’ income. A system was also introduced where, almost uniquely in advanced economies, companies could set off both past losses against corporation tax, and carry back losses to reduced their tax bill too.

None of this led to an increase in productive investment, which was the supposed reason for these huge giveaways to capital. Instead there was a very substantial increase in speculative investment, which did contribute to the crash. On the contrary, investment (Gross Fixed Capital Formation, GFCF) continued its long-term decline, as shown in Fig.2 below.

Fig. 2 Investment decline as a proportion of GDP

The effect of boosting speculative investment is indicated by the growth of housing as a component of the pre-crash British economic expansion. Fig. 3 below shows the level of GFCF and the level of productive investment, that is GFCF omitting housing. This clearly shows that the decline in productive investment was uninterrupted throughout the period of New Labour as well as before and since under the Tories. In this entire period economic policy was neoliberal dominance which meant there was an explicit aim of reducing taxes on business in order to increase investment. The policy was a complete failure.

Fig. 3 Investment and productive (non-housing) investment

The trend towards lower productive investment by the private sector and increased speculative activity was also fostered by the government’s cuts to the level of public sector investment. The data and OBR projections are shown in Fig.4 below. As government is the biggest single purchaser of goods and services in the economy, cutting government investment encourages the private sector to cut its own investment.

It is one of the central myths of neoliberal economics that government investment ‘crowds out’ private sector investment. The opposite was the case; a cut in government investment accompanied declining productive investment by the private sector. By contrast, rhe temporary rise in public sector investment in 2008 and 2009 helped to lift the economy out of recession and was rapidly ended by the last Coalition government.

Fig.4 Public sector investment
Source: OBR

New Labour did not spend too much. It taxed and spent too little, less than Thatcher. Worse, the cuts in taxes for the business sector and the owners of assets did not lead to increased investment. Investment fell and was itself exacerbated by the decline in public sector investment.

Defence of these simple facts has been made an acid test. They are actually the vestiges of social democratic economic policy at the level of the Labour leadership. If it is accepted that Labour ‘spent too much’, big business interests will have rewritten history in its own interests and fundamentally undermined the character of the Labour Party.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Despite Cameron-Crosby’s tactical triumph Tory support will continue to decline

By John Ross

The 2015 General Election was a stunning Tory tactical success.They won a majority of Parliamentary seats with the second lowest share of the popular vote for any party achieving this in British history – only Tony Blair’s vote in 2005 was smaller. Cameron is the Tory Prime Minister, with a majority in Parliament, with the lowest share of the popular vote in history.The unpopularity of coalition policies was shown in a dramatic 15% fall in the share of the vote for its parties - from 59% to 44% – but the Tories ensured Liberal Democrats suffered 100% of the loss. Lynton Crosby earned every penny of his fees from Cameron.

But despite the tactical triumph did the Tories shift the social forces and underlying trends in British politics? And if they didn’t what will be the consequences?

To analyse this the starting point has to be not opinion polls but real elections – which determine political shifts. Figure 1 chart shows the modern Conservative party’s share of the vote at every election since its first in 1847 after the split of the old Tory Party over the Corn Laws. The story the chart tells is clear. Short term swings are superimposed on an underlying trend of rising Tory support for almost a century until 1931 and then decline for over 80 years.

Figure 1
15 05 09 Tories

This curve is not a statistical oddity but clear social processes produced it. The modern Conservatives originated in the South East of England, outside London, in the mid-nineteenth century. Over nearly a century they rose to become Britain’s dominant party by adding, in chronological order, mass support in North West England, London, the West Midlands and Scotland. Tory decline was the progressive loss first of Scotland, then North West England, then the West Midlands and London. Now the Tories are back in their original rural and South East bastion.

It is certainly possible to misjudge short term swings – the present author mistakenly believed two years ago that Labour would be ahead of the Tories due to the unpopularity of the coalition’s austerity policies. But a still more basic question for the future of British politics is have the Tories reversed their decline? The answer is no.

To see why focus on the post-1931 vote – its downward shifting trend is clear as shown in Figure 2 which shows the descending part of the chart above. This thesis of ‘Tory decline,’ when I first produced the chart of this trend in 1983 at the height of Thatcher’s grip on politics, in my book Thatcher and Friends, was met with disbelief. But it met the test of seven out of the eight next general elections. It is certainly annoying for the author, and much more importantly tragic for the country, that in 2015 it didn’t. But as the chart shows the Tory 36.9% in 2015 doesn’t break the overall descending trendline.

Figure 2
15 05 10 Tory 1931-2015

The underlying social forces that had produced the overall decline continued to operate even in 2015. Tory support in Scotland fell further to 14.7% - in 1945-55 Conservatives had more support in Scotland than England. In the North of England there was a swing to Labour. In the South’s urban bastion, London, Labour won 45 seats to the Tories 27. In contrast, in the South outside London, the Tories won seats from Labour.

The Tories collapsed further back into their South of England and rural heartland. Despite the dramatic 15.2% collapse of Liberal Democratic votes the Tories could only pick up a tiny 0.8% in a winning year – although it is unusual for them to increase at all between election victories.

For future trends Scotland decided the election in a dual sense. First it saw a crushing rush of votes to an SNP to Labour’s left. That was then used to in a scare campaign aimed at persuading English voters into not supporting Labour – for Tory media demonic Scots occupied the place previously occupied by Jews, West Indians, Romanians etc.

It is totally improbable Labour will ever regain Scottish dominance – any Blairite shift by Labour in England will further distance it from a Scotland which found even Ed Miliband too right wing. Scotland in 2015 is the equivalent of two previous tectonic shifts in British politics - 1868 when Irish Home Rule supporters entered parliament and 1900 when Labour did.

If the ‘Tory decline’ thesis is correct the consequences of this are clear. Despite the tactical success Tory support will shift downwards. The last time the Tories ‘cheated’ social forces by astute tactics, in 1992, tensions broke out despite the victory. The political fault lines of Tory decline this time are clear.

Whether to break promises to Scotland on further devolution, whether to adopt the divisive principle of only English MPs voting on English issues?

On the EU Cameron always intended to call for a referendum ‘Yes’ regardless of whether Merkel makes concessions. But not only UKIP but part of the Tories will campaign for exit.

The economic recovery is based on foreign borrowing and much of the worst hardship on social services to come.

If the ‘Tory decline’ analysis is correct Cameron/Crosby’s tactical success will therefore not halt the deepening fall of the party’s support.

Given that in 2015 the Tories engineered a tiny 0.8% increase in their support it is legitimate to demand the ‘Tory decline’ thesis be examined. I believe the facts show this election was a great Tory tactical success but it cannot halt the fundamental trend undermining Tory support. Naturally if the future trends show the opposite, that the Tory increase was not a blip in a descending trend but the beginning of a real upward shift , then ‘Tory decline’ would have to be abandoned.

It probably wasn’t Keynes who said ‘When the facts change, I change my mind, what do you do?’ But whoever did was correct. So far seven general elections out of eight confirmed the analysis of ‘Tory decline.’ The facts of the next five years will be the test again. The social facts show the Tory decline will continue – shaping the most fundamental trends in British politics.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Can the Lib-Dems save Tory Britain?

By John Ross
By now many pollsters admit they misread the election campaign. As Freddie Sayers, You Gov’s Editor in Chief, put it: ‘Back in February, it was still considered a near-certainty by the media pundits that the Conservatives would end up significantly ahead. Ed Miliband was unconvincing, the economic numbers coming in were all positive, and now the SNP were wiping out Labour in Scotland: the Conservatives themselves felt a certain inevitability about their return to power after May 7th.’
The election campaign has not turned out like that – the Tories have not gained support. But an attempt has been to explain this by short term factors such as Lynton Crosby’s distasteful election tactics or backlash against the Tory media’s attempted character assassination of Ed Miliband. As Peter Kellner summarised this analysis: ‘Tories pay the price of an inept campaign’.
This view is wrong. History, including election campaigns, is ‘natural selection of accidents’. Far more powerful forces than Lynton Crosby, or David Cameron’s inability to accurately name his supposed favourite football term, explain the failure of Tory support to rise.
To show the deep social processes explaining absence of the anticipated Tory surge the graph below shows the Tories percentage of the vote at every general election since the party’s highest ever score –  55.0% in 1931. The graph is breath-taking in the steadiness of its decline.
Already after World War II the peak Tory vote was 49.6% in 1955 - lower than inter-war levels. It fell to 41.9% by 1992 - the last time the Tories won a majority in the House of Commons. By 2010, when they had declined to being the largest party, but without an overall majority of seats, Tory support was  36.1%. Typically each Tory victory was won with a lower percentage of the vote than the one before, each Tory defeat saw the party’s support fall further than the one previously.


This process is produced by clear social trends. The modern Conservatives originated in the South East of England, outside London, in the mid-nineteenth century following the old Tory Party’s split over repeal of the corn laws. Over nearly a century the Conservatives rose to become Britain’s dominant party by adding, in chronological order, mass support in North West England, London, the West Midlands and Scotland – the current Tory rump in Scotland, with one seat, is in a nation where from 1945-55 Tories actually had more support than England! The Tory decline was the progressive loss of first Scotland, then North West England, then the West Midlands and London.  Now the Tories are back in their original South East bastion. 
This trend, based on real elections not polls, was analysed in 1983 in my book Thatcher and Friends and has continued to operate since. It is such powerful forces, operating over more than 80 years, which underlay the failure of Tory support to rise in the election campaign.
Relentless historical Tory decline, of course, does not mean there are no short term shifts. There is a swing factor of slightly under 5% between a Tory victory and a defeat - explained by events nearer the time of an election. But this is superimposed on an underlying erosion of the Tory vote of slightly over 0.2% a year.
Taking these trends, if the Tories were the leading party on 7 May, they would get a bit under 35% of the vote, and if they were the losing party they would get slightly over 30%. The problem is that with a maximum theoretical 35% vote the Tories could not win an overall majority of seats. Failure to analyse longer term social processes caused failure to foresee accurately the course of the election.
Faced with these trends Labour’s policy has shown strategic errors to a higher degree than anticipated. Labour should have understood Tory support could not rise. The key for Labour was therefore to ensure the unity of its moderate left support. Instead relentless minimisation of Labour’s difference with the Tories during the Scottish referendum campaign, the positioning of Labour to the right of the SNP, must count as one of the worst strategic blunders in recent British politics. Without this Ed Miliband could be practicing his victory remarks outside 10 Downing Street. Labour’s ‘steer right’ policy also opened a space for the Greens in England. It is for these reasons that it not impossible the Tories may get a bit over 34% as the largest party, not slightly over 30% as the losing one.
But this does not alter the fundamental trend of Tory decline. Basic social forces, not contingent mistakes, have blocked a rise in Tory support in the election campaign. It is because the Conservatives are incapable of halting their own decline that the paradox is… only the Liberal Democrats can now save Tory Britain!