Steve Hughes is the Head of Economic and Social Policy at Policy Exchange.
George Osborne’s first five years in the Treasury were all about balance. In the first instance, because he had to manage deficit reduction, which required judgement calls on how fast to go, and the appropriate mix of spending reductions and tax rises. He had to weigh up who would be protected and who would lose out from austerity, leading to the commitments to ring-fence the budgets for health, education and the state pension. In the second instance, because of his belief that the UK’s economic model needed rebalancing, because he wants to ensure that future growth can be achieved in a sustainable way, with an economy more resilient to the type of shock experienced during the financial crisis, and moving towards more saving, investment and exporting. The Chancellor has repeatedly outlined that what this means most to him is a transformation of the UK’s industrial base, trade patterns, economic geography, and consumption habits.
While it can be said that between 2010 and 2015 huge progress was made to clear the deficit, the same cannot be said for other elements of rebalancing the economy. This, though, is understandable. Sorting out the public finances was rightly the number one priority for the Coalition, taking up much of the Treasury’s time and effort in the process, as well as using up vast reserves of the Government’s wider political will. It could also be argued that Osborne’s concentration on, and deftness in managing, deficit reduction – at least in the eyes of the public – was a big contributor towards securing an outright Conservative election victory in May. Indeed, to have ended his chancellorship after five years would have left a distinct feel of unfinished business on the rebalancing agenda.
The flurry of post-election policy activity showed that big reforms were waiting in the wings. The overhaul of the savings system will continue, with the government consulting on how the taxation of pensions can be re-designed. Attempts to generate higher growth in the regions have been accelerated, with nearly 40 devolution proposals submitted to Whitehall for consideration and business rates devolved to local authorities. The employment rate is the highest since records began, but increased free childcare and the National Living Wage could further affect who is employed, how people are employed, and how productive they are.
There are also much better conditions for the Chancellor to make reforms that support rebalancing at the start of this Parliament than there was during most of the last. There is decent growth, spending is under control, the labour market continues to strengthen, the Conservatives are unencumbered by the need to compromise with coalition partners, and many ministers have five years’ experience of working in government under their belt. But while there may be a better environment to implement change, there will likely be less immediate indications of how successful that change is. We can almost see in real time how much the deficit has fallen; we can’t immediately understand how current policy has altered the underlying composition of the economy.
A good example of this is the wish to boost the UK’s manufacturing and export base, represented by one of George Osborne’s most identifiable phrases, in which he pledged to create “A Britain held aloft by the march of the makers”. Policy has broadly followed the right path to help make this happen: state support for companies exporting or wanting to export has been boosted, there are more generous tax incentives aimed at investment, headline corporation tax is now more competitive, and high profile trade missions have been made. With the limited levers that are at the state’s disposal, however, a commitment to a long game of policy stability is needed, not least because the statistics are stark in showing how far we have to go.
The fact is that UK goods exports to China – often used as an indicator of how well we are doing in breaking our trade reliance on the EU and the US – grew fourfold in the ten years to 2014 and still only accounts for just over three per cent of the physical stuff we sell to the rest of the world. It is also true that the last Government was the first since records began in the late 1970s to see the number of people employed in manufacturing higher at the end of their time in office than at the beginning. But at the moment this represents a halt in decline, rather than a renaissance; there were four million manufacturing employees at the turn of the century, compared to just over 2.5 million now.
Osborne’s vision of rebalancing is not one of misty-eyed nostalgia for a precious period in the UK’s post-war history. Instead, it is of high tech companies selling around the globe, a financial services sector that is not maligned and is encouraged to locate here, and growth in the regions that complements the growth of London (and vice versa). To judge whether this vision has turned into reality, however, we will have to wait.