The Budget presented by Chancellor Phillip Hammond was the confirmation that seven years of misery under Conservative austerity have been for nothing. Official figures, released at the same time from the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), are devastating for this government’s claim to economic competence. Growth is down, and is now the lowest of major developed economies in the G7. Productivity growth, the fuel for wider economic growth, is the worst since it has been since the Industrial Revolution. The Institute for Fiscal Studies now talks about two “lost decades” for wages growth, with most people’s living standards not expected to recover until 2022.
The headlines figures are appallingly bad. And, as often with the OBR, much of the devil was in the details in their Economic and Fiscal Outlook. The effects of Brexit are “uncertain” but negative, under this government, who couldn’t provide enough detail on their approach to Brexit for their own forecasters to do their work “on the basis of fully-specified government policy”. A grim little note, on page 99, to the effect that the government’s fiscal position has been improved by “higher mortality rates at older ages than previously assumed”.
What the careful text doesn’t tell you is the human cost behind the figures. Cuts to Universal Credit, still going ahead, that will drive a million more children into poverty over the next five years. Cuts to local authority spending that will leave children’s services on the brink of what charities have called a “catastrophe”.
Austerity has not just failed, but failed so badly that a complete overhaul of government economic policy is now needed. What we got on Thursday instead was a series of sleights of hand from a Chancellor who seemingly cannot match up to the challenges ahead, and is in denial about the emergency in our public services. We needed real change from this government last Thursday: the funding that is being demanded, not by Labour, but by experts and professionals in our health service, our children’s services, and our schools.
What we got instead was an accountancy trick, shuffling Housing Association debt off the government’s balance sheet to flatter the its deficit, merely two years after bringing it on the books. But the housing crisis won’t be solved by financial trickery. It needs real funding and bricks-and-mortar. The £44billion announced for housing with such a fanfare on Thursday lunchtime turned, by Thursday evening, to be just £7billion in actual new funding. Without increasing the supply of housing, as Labour’s own manifesto promised, the cut to stamp duty for first time buyers is little more than a quick way to drive up prices – as the OBR noted. It forecast just 3,500 new buyers to benefit, with the main gainers from the policy being “people who already own property.”
What we got on Thursday was a series of sleights of hand from a Chancellor who seemingly cannot match up to the challenges ahead
We have 80,000 households living in temporary accommodation because councils simply don’t have anywhere to house them. In the sixth richest country on earth, over 120,540 children without a home to call their own – and this is up 60% under the Tories. This is the sharp end of our housing crisis and this Budget did nothing to alleviate it.
The £1.9billion extra for the NHS is less than half the £4billionn experts say is needed to resolve the immediate crisis. The £177million for schools is close to derisory, set against the £1.7billion funding cut that will see the first real-terms decline in per-pupil funding since the 1990s. A quarter of teachers who have qualified since 2011 have left the profession, and headteachers across the country are already reduced to begging for cash from parents.
There was nothing in this for social care. Nothing for children’s services. Nothing for mental health. Not a penny for police, or the fire service. The pay cap remains in place, with any possible improvements tied to a worsening of conditions for hard-pressed public service workers.
Above all else, this social and economic disaster is one entirely of the government’s own making. They have cut government investment, with real terms funding down £20billion since 2010. And they have failed to encourage business investment, which is now the lowest in the G7 and expected to decline further. The result is a low productivity, low wage economy, able to create hundreds of thousands of insecure, poorly-paid job, but not able to support a decent standard of living for most, and whose once-envied public services are crumbling away.
Philip Hammond had the chance to change course this week. He failed. Labour stands ready to take over and build an economy that works for the many, not the few.
John McDonnell is the shadow Chancellor and Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington