Michael Meacher (Oldham West and Royton, Labour)
On 3 December, the Chancellor will be confronted with a whole array of facts and statistics that he never intended or expected to see. Like an echolaliac obsessive, he has constantly repeated on every available occasion—it has been the same today—that the Government have a long-term economic plan.
So was it the Government’s long-term economic plan that average wages should fall by an average of 9% in real terms—the biggest fall since the depression of Victorian times in the 1870s—and that in the past year the rise in the average wage should be a pitiful £1 a year, which, after adjusting for inflation, is a chunky fall of 1.6%? Was it the Government’s long-term economic plan that UK productivity should now be the worst in the G7 leading high-income countries, and that while output per hour between 2007 and 2013 rose by 8% in the United States, by 5% in Japan, by 3% in Canada, by 2% in Germany, and by 1% in France, in the UK, uniquely, it fell by 3% and shows no sign of improving in the future?
Was it the Government’s long-term economic plan—this really is important—that six years after the crash, business investment should still be flat, at a level 10% below pre-crash, or that the FTSE 100 companies should still now be sitting on cash stockpiles of over £500 billion and not investing because they do not believe the Chancellor’s so-called recovery is sustainable? Was it the Government’s long-term economic plan that net exports in traded goods—that is, manufactured imports less exports—should now be chalking up the biggest deficit in British history, perhaps as much as £110 billion this year? To cap it all, was it the Government’s long-term economic plan that after nearly five years of austerity, the budget deficit should not be falling at all but rising again this year, when it is still a whopping £100 billion?
That then leads to the central question in this debate: what is the rationale for continuing with austerity when the consequences of austerity—the draining of demand out of the economy, as I have explained—are actually increasing the deficit, not reducing it? What is the answer to that central question? The Minister, in an exceedingly shrill, partisan and strident speech, made no attempt at all to answer it.
Nor is the situation just a glitch this year. With economic growth now slipping from 0.9% in the second quarter to 0.7% in the third quarter, and predicted to be 0.5% in the current quarter, and with household incomes continuing to fall—indeed, the 1.6% real-terms fall in the past year is the largest since records began—the Government’s tax take, which is crucial to the deficit, is likely to drop still further in future years. The only way the Chancellor can then start to get the budget down again is by even more draconian cuts in public expenditure and benefits than in his first five years—perhaps by even double the £25 billion that he has already announced, as the Financial Times is predicting. Even if that were politically possible—that is highly doubtful, as polling evidence is clearly showing a public rapidly cooling towards any further austerity ravaging their livelihoods—it would only worsen the basic problem for the Government of making even deeper inroads into their tax income. The Government are finally ending up eating their own tail.
The truth is that the Government have only ever been able to point to two positive elements in their economic policy. One is the much-vaunted recovery, but that has always been over-dependent on a housing asset bubble. It has never rebalanced the economy from finance to manufacturing. It has never gained any legs because, as I have explained, all the potential sources of demand are now pointing firmly south and all the economic indicators show that it is beginning to fizzle out. The other is the unexpected increase in employment, which has been regularly mentioned in this debate, but there too the surface picture is very deceptive. Overwhelmingly, the jobs have come from self-employment, where the average wage has fallen by a massive 13%, or from part-time work.
But those are the details: what really matters about this awful episode of the past five years is that the Government have been pursuing a slash-and-burn policy that is ultimately self-destructive, as we are now seeing all too clearly. They are doing this because their primary motive is not to eliminate the structural deficit but to use the deficit as once-in-a-lifetime leverage to overthrow the post-war social democratic settlement and to shrink the state so that the public sector is transformed into a fully privatised market system.
It need not be like this. The Chancellor has handled the deficit appallingly badly, with maximum pain and minimum benefit, and it could have been so different. By comparison, the previous Labour Chancellor brought in two expansionary Budgets in 2009 and 2010 to counter the monetary collapse caused by the bankers. That cut the deficit from the peak of £157 billion to £118 billion—a reduction of nearly £40 billion in two years. The current Chancellor’s austerity Budgets then kicked in, and the rate of deficit reduction halved over the next three years. He had said that by this year the deficit would be £40 billion, yet it is actually about £100 billion.
What does the record show is the best way to cut the deficit? Is it by stimulating the economy to produce real jobs and boost incomes, as Labour did, or by slashing expenditure, degrading the foundations of our society, and delivering the biggest fall in average real incomes since Victorian times, as this Government have done? Frankly, it is a no-brainer. Continuing with austerity when it has ravaged the livelihoods of millions, destroyed so much of the social fabric of our society and is not now even cutting the deficit, which is supposed to be the whole object of the exercise, can only be described as a certifiable condition.
There is a better way of doing this. It can be funded, with no increase at all in public borrowing, by instructing the publicly owned banks—the Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds—to prioritise lending to British industry rather than financial speculation overseas, by having a modest further tranche of quantitative easing targeted directly on key industrial projects rather than wasted on the banks as hitherto, or by taxing the ultra-rich. That is the way we should go.