Socialist Economic Bulletin

The attack on the NHS

The attack on the NHS

By Michael Burke

The first major domestic political initiative by the Tory-led Coalition since the TUC’s March 27 demonstration has to been to call a pause in the implementation of its plans for the NHS. The government’s unpopularity is likely to deepen over the next period as the combination of spending cuts and tax increases in the Financial Year (FY) just ended amounts to £9.4bn compared to £41bn in the FY just begun. The TUC-led manifestation of opposition to the governments cuts agenda has prompted the government rethink. How thorough a ‘reorientation’ that becomes will in part be a function of the degree of continued mobilisation against the cuts. But it is clear campaigning and demonstrating does have an effect.

The attack on the NHS is on two fronts. First, despite assertions that the NHS is ‘safe in our hands’ and that spending on it was being ‘ring-fenced’, it is now widely understood that real cuts are taking place, even if government speakers insist on calling them £20bn of ‘efficiency savings’. Secondly, the fundamental character of the HNS is being altered, with the Tories seeking the maximum possible role for the private sector. This scope of that role is only circumscribed by the political situation – and this is what they have now paused to reassess.

NHS Cuts

In assessing the degree of cuts to the NHS budget in real terms three factors need to be taken into account:

  • Government data are presented in nominal (cash) terms, not real terms
  • Therefore the level of inflation needs to be included in calculations – and this is usually greater in medical equipment, drugs, etc., than in economy-wide inflation
  • The population is both growing and ageing, which means that real medical spending would have to increase simply in order to keep with the natural rise in demand

With those factors in mind, it is clear that government cuts are deep in real terms. From the Comprehensive Spending Review of October 2010 to the ‘Resource Departmental Expenditure Limits are shown in Table 1 below (Table A.9, p.85).

Table 1

11 04 07 NHS Table 1

To take the current FY, spending is set to rise by 2.0% compared to the spending in FY 2010/11, even though RPI inflation is currently running at 5.5%. In fact, the total level of spending on the same measure under the last Labour government in the FY 2009/10 was £103bn (Treasury, Budget 2010, Table 2.2, p.43). By the end of the current FY this government will have been in office for just under two years. Over that time spending on the NHS will have risen from £103bn to just £105.9bn, or 2.8%. According to the Office of Budget Responsibility, RPI inflation will have risen by a cumulative 10% over the same period (OBR, Economic and Fiscal Outlook, March 2011, Table 4.3, p.95). This represents a decline in real spending of 7.2% in just two years.

This continues so that over five years nominal NHS spending is projected to rise from £103bn to £114.4bn, or fractionally over 11%. At the same time, the OBR projects that inflation will have risen by 22%, representing a real decline of 11%.

According to the OECD health spending tends to increase internationally by around 1.5% per year over the long run, because of growing and ageing populations as well as the higher inflation rate of medical processes. If that long-run international pattern applies to Britain overt the 5-year period, the additional real spending required would increase by 7.7%.

The Tory-led cuts to the NHS are therefore nearly 19% in real terms compared to normal trends over the lifetime of this Parliament.

NHS Restructuring

The cuts in real spending on health will have disastrous outcomes. They will also be difficult to achieve because cutting spending on preventive treatments and minor procedures will tend to have the effect of significantly increasing the health bill on major procedures. As a result, health outcomes will actually deteriorate more rapidly than the headline data suggest. By definition, the most vulnerable will suffer as a result.

Much more than the real cuts in spending, which are not fully appreciated, the government has drawn fire for its plans to restructure the health service. It is intended that the Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) will be abolished and replaced with consortia of GPs to commission medical services, with much talk of local devolution of decision-making. As elsewhere the reactionary utopia of patients (or students) becoming ‘customers’ who choose their service-provider gives way to the reality that it is the professional entity which does the choosing (GPs, school governors, etc).

PCTs themselves are a New Labour half-way house, designed to continually introduce private sector providers among the rosters of legitimate ‘NHS’ service providers – indeed they were obliged to do so. But this piecemeal privatisation of health services- while maintaining the NHS brand – is insufficient for the Tory-led government. It intends a wholesale transfer of provision to the private sector, and a variety of mechanisms may be deployed.

These include insisting the GP consortia allocate to the lowest bidder, or rewarding them financially for doing so. The option of removing the NHS from British and EU competition law is also considered, which allows ‘social providers’ to be excluded from lowest-bidder regulations. Any of these would have the effect of allowing the private sector firms to provide services in only the most routine and simple procedures- but remove the equivalent funds from the NHS which would increasingly struggle to cope with more complex, difficult procedures or chronic conditions. The costs of the public sector would rise and be increasingly unable to cope against a backdrop of continuous and deep real cuts. The private sector could increasingly win a greater proportion of formerly NHS provision, leaving it to wither.

The Inefficient Private Sector

Figure 1 below is taken from the OECD’s ‘Health At A Glance’ 2010. It shows the per capita health spending for the OECD countries in comparable US$ Purchasing Power Parity terms.

Figure 1

NHS Figure 1
Health spending in Britain is already way below the average of its peer group in the richest OECD economies. Tory cuts will take it to below the OECD average as a whole.

The chart also shows that in general, as the proportion of private spending on healthcare rises, so does the overall cost. The US has the highest proportion of private provision and its total healthcare costs are off the chart – even although 45 million Americans have no healthcare insurance, compared to the universal system for the NHS. For 2007 (latest data) the US spent 16% of GDP on healthcare, whereas Britain spent 8.4% (OECD, 2009). Yet there is the same ratio of health workers in the workforce and life expectancy at birth is higher in Britain.

The private sector is more inefficient than the public sector in the provision of health care. At every level of input, a private system requires an additional level of profit to be extracted. Because the government has cut first and begun privatisation second, one of the effects is the PCTs are currently abandoning private firms – because they are more costly than the NHS! The government intends to investigate this breach of the right to profit.

The aim of government policy is not better healthcare, or even more efficient, less costly healthcare. It is to boost the profits of the private sector by displacing the more efficient public sector.

Campaigners to preserve the NHS and make it more responsive to the needs of patients have already caused a pause in the programme. They should know that maintaining their campaigns can force either a more profound rethink, or hugely increase the political price paid by this government for this policy.

T Walker

How the Tories sabotaged the economic upturn

How the Tories sabotaged the economic upturnBy Michael Burke

The latest economic data confirms the contraction in Britain’s 4th quarter GDP with only a marginal upward revision to a fall of 0.5% compared to the 0.6% previously reported. Even according to statisticians from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) the severe weather effect at the end of the year only depressed activity by 0.5% and without it the outturn would still have been zero. This follows four quarters of modest recovery with positive growth, which had seen GDP expand by 2.5%.

Therefore, while snow was responsible for the outright economic contraction at the end of last year, another factor must have been responsible for the downward shift from 2.5% to zero growth.

The Role of Investment

The slump in economic growth is dominated by the collapse in investment. In the course of the recession, GDP contracted by £88.6bn. The one year long recovery clawed back £32bn of that lost output, to leave it £56.6bn below its previous peak. The renewed contraction in the 4th quarter of 2010 of £6.2bn means that output is now £62.8bn, or still 70% of the total fall, below its peak level.The role of fixed investment (Gross Fixed Capital Formation, or GFCF) has been decisive in the decline. Within the recession, the decline in GFCF accounted for £43.6bn or nearly half of the total decline in GDP. But taking the recession and recovery together the decline in GFCF accounts for £31.5bn, or 56% of the total in lost output. The decline in investment has once more led the way, accounting for over 60% of the contraction in the 4th quarter,£3.8bn of £6.2bn. For the whole period from the recession to date and including the 4th quarter contraction, the slump in investment accounts for £35.4bn of a total in lost output of £62.8bn – that is, 56% of the total decline.

The Role of Government & Private Sector

Investment has two sources, the government and the private sector. Although ONS does not present the data in this way it is possible to construct the differing effects of these two sources on the trends in investment (Table F of the ONS release).

In the course of the recession the Labour government attempted to offset its effects by increasing its own investment. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) in 2009, government investment rose by 16.9% while business investment fell by 18.9%. There was also a follow-through in 2010 as Labour was in office until May, some contracts take time to complete etc. The OBR estimated a 4.4% increase in government investment in 2010.1

Turning to the ONS data allows a more precise calculation of the role of the two sectors on investment. Here government investment indicates the general government GFCF as well as that of public corporations, while the private sector GFCF comprises business investment along with private sector investment in dwellings and existing buildings.

Government investment rose by £9.9bn during the recession. It rose further until Labour left office, to £11.2bn. Under the Tory-led coalition it has since fallen by £4.2bn.

If GFCF has been falling total and the government component has been rising, it follows that the private sector is entirely responsible for the fall in investment – and that this fall is greater than the decline in investment as a whole. In the recession, the fall in private sector investment was £52.9bn. This is 60% of the entire fall in GDP in the recession. Because private sector investment has grown even more slowly than GDP during the recovery, it has acted as a further drag on growth. From the pre-recession peak to the end of the recovery phase in the 3rd quarter of 2010 private sector investment fell by £39.7bn, or over 70% of the total decline in output. Investment fell by £3.8bn again in the 4th quarter, which is once more the bulk of the decline in total output during the quarter, which amounted to £6.2bn. Private sector investment fell by £2.1bn in the 4th quarter, so that it now stands £41.8bn below the pre-recession peak. The decline in private investment is responsible for exactly two-thirds of the total loss of output.

The dominant characteristic of the current slump is therefore a private sector ‘investment strike’, which accounts for two-thirds of lost output. The Labour government attempted to counterbalance this strike by a moderate increase in its own investment. Not only did this offset some of the worst effects of the recession, but it finally encouraged the private sector to briefly increase its own investment. In the three quarters from the end of 2009 to the 3rd quarter of 2010, private sector investment rose by £16.6bn, and was itself responsible for two-thirds of the recovery during those 3 quarters. The private sector was encouraged to increase its own investment in response to the persistent rise in government investment.

SEB has previously shown in a more detailed analysis of construction investment how the public sector led the way for the much larger increases in private sector investment. Conversely, a recent survey for the Institute for Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) shows that 45% of all firms expect their turnover to fall as a result of government spending cuts – up from 21% who already report falling turnover. The detail of the survey is set out in the Table below.

11 04 02 Table 1

While economic ideologues talk about ‘Expansionary Fiscal Contraction’ or the ‘private sector taking up the slack’, it has been left to accountants to show how the relationship between the public and private sectors actually works. It is clear that the cuts will have a negative impact on the prospects of the private sector. But the survey also shows the dynamic effect of reduced public sector inputs on the output of the different parts of the private sector, as a ‘ripple effect’ with first those firms supplying directly to government being hit first, then those firms who only indirectly supply to government (is whose own customers are direct suppliers to government), and finally but increasingly those firms who have no obvious relationship to government at all but whose business will suffer from the general economic downtrend, including consumer demand and demand for business services.

The Consequences of ‘Austerity’ Policy

The role of government has been decisive in determining the trends in the economy. In the course of the recession and subsequent recovery, total government spending, including its contribution to GFCF rose by £18.1bn, and so was directly responsible for more than half the recovery of £32bn. As already shown, it was also responsible for inducing the brief recovery in private sector investment which itself accounted for two-thirds of the recovery during its 3 quarters of expansion.

Reversing the rise in government investment has produced a renewed downturn in economic activity. But it should be pointed out that the government will find it much more difficult to reverse the upward trends in its own current spending. As governments in Athens, Lisbon and Dublin are demonstrating, cuts to welfare entitlements will not reduce welfare spending if the numbers on welfare are rising at a greater rate than entitlements are being slashed.

In relation to unemployment, the same ICAEW survey cited above shows that 47% of the private sector have already reduced the number of permanent staff because of the impact on their businesses caused by the cuts, and 36% have reduced the numbers of temporary or contract staff (which is also leading to a growing casualisation of work for those in work).

The current economic downturn was deeper than the recession under Major in the early 1990s or the Thatcher recession of the early 1980s. Output fell by 6.4% in 2008/09, while it fell by only 2.5% in 1990/91 and 4.6% in 1980/81. The recovery has also been slower now, as Figure 1 below shows.

11 04 04 Figure 1

However, the outcomes of the different recessions in terms of unemployment have been markedly different. From Table 2 below it can be seen that, although the most recent downturn was much more severe than either the Thatcher or Major recessions, the fall in employment was markedly less. This is despite the fact that, as already noted, the recovery is also weaker.

11 04 02 Table 2

One chilling statistic within these comparative data is that at Thatcher’s election in 1979 total employment in the British economy stood at 24,716,000 jobs and that level was not regained until the 1st quarter of 1998, during Labour’s first term.

These comparisons are relevant because employment is falling once more due to the coalition’s growth-damaging policies. The numbers in employment have been falling since August 2010, and this trend is likely to accelerate in both the public and private sectors under the impact of government policy.

Given the link between growth and government finances, which are highly sensitive to taxation receipts, it s no surprise that a similar pattern is evident in relation to the public sector deficit. While Labour’s increased spending was producing a moderate recovery, the public sector deficit fell. The Treasury had projected the public sector deficit as high as £178bn in the financial year (FY) about to end. However, up to January of this year the 12-month rolling total for the deficit had fallen to £141bn, and it had been falling for exactly one year on this measure. This positive trend was reversed in February this year, mirroring the renewed deterioration in the economy, with a small time lag. In February the 12-month rolling total for the deficit rose to £143.3bn. The OBR now forecasts it will be £145.9bn in the current FY.

In a damning indictment of government policy the OBR is also now forecasting significantly higher deficits in subsequent years (Table 4.27) than it did in either the June 2010 Budget or following the Comprehensive Spending Review in November. Compared to June, when the economy was undergoing a government investment-led recovery, the OBR is now forecasting cumulatively worse public sector deficits over the period to 2015/16. Of this, the overwhelming majority of the projected worse outcome is due to the lower growth the OBR is now forecasting (Table 4.25).

The failures of the Tory-led Coalition

It is mistake to view these economic changes, lower growth, lower employment and higher borrowing as anything other than the natural consequences of the policy which has been adopted. Many of the collective authors of these policies have read Keynes, some of them have even read Marx too. They are surely all aware of what happened when the same policies were pursued under the cloak of monetarism and the ‘disciplins of the Exchange Rate Mechanism’ at an overvalued exchange rate in the 1980s and 1990s.

But ‘lowering the public sector deficit’ now is no more the real goal of government policy than controlling the supply of money was under Thatcher. The deficit is rising once more, and is projected to increase compared to previous projections. A government solely committed to this end would change policy.

Nor is this an ‘ideological’ government in the sense that an adherence to a smaller state overrides all other objectives. Actual, rather than budgeted military spending is suddenly increasing as the projection of state power over the oilfields of Libya is now very important.

To grasp the dynamic of government policy it is necessary to understand what this policy is actually achieving. In a capitalist economy this means addressing what is happening to the shares of capital and to labour. Close proxies for these are provided in the ONS’s accounts by ‘the ‘Gross Operating Surplus’ (GoS) of firms and the ‘Compensation of Employees’ (CoE) – which are respectively broadly akin to profit and wages (although there are some important differences).

In recessions, profits fall faster than wages. For example a firm sells widgets for £3 million and pays £1.8m in wages. Its gross profits, before any taxes are levied, are £1.2mn. But suppose demand contracts by 5%. Total sales have declined to £2.85m. If wages are unchanged, the widget makers’ profits have fallen to £1.05mn. In this case a 5% decline in the economy has led to a 12.5% fall in profits. From this dynamic comes the push to drive up profits via lowering wages, cutting workers, removing regulations on business and lowering their taxes. Businesses have enacted the first of these two policies and the government has enacted the second two. There is also the government hope that lower wages in the public sector combined with lower benefits will push wages lower in the private sector. Mainstream economists have a name for this, the ‘demonstration effect’.

Taking only the data for the 4th quarter of 2010 compared to the previous year, the compensation of employees rose by 2.1% while the profits (GoS) of private on-financial corporations rose by 12.7%. In addition, ‘other income’, the income of the professionally self-employed and rental income on property rose by 9.9%. Only the profits of the private financial corporations fell, by 28.1%, which is why they insist they must be bailed out by taxpayers. Given that inflation rose by 2.7% in the year, this means that real wages fell 0.6% over the period, while ‘other income’ rose by 7.2% and non-financial profits rose by 10%.

This then is the real ‘achievement’ of the Tory-led coalition. Since the low-point of the recession, just 40% of the increase in value created has accrued to labour while 60% has accrued to capital. But it still leaves the renewed growth in capital below its pre-recession levels so there will be more to come.

But, so far as the Tory-led coalition is concerned, it is doing the right thing ‘sticking to Plan A’. Plan A is the restoration of profits by transferring incomes from labour to capital. However, we shall see in the immediate period ahead whether even this goal can be met. The downturn in the economy at the end of last year was the result of £9.4bn in spending cuts and tax increases. This FY that total will rise to £41bn. Unemployment and the deficit will certainly rise as a result. It is not clear that either GDP or even profits will grow.

Britain in 2011 will provide a testing ground for what is the real goal of a reactionary economic policy – to drive up profits while cutting living standards. If not then, given the character of the government, even more cuts, lower wages, lower services, lower benefits, greater deregulation and privatisations will be the policy.

1. OBR, Economic and fiscal outlook 2011, Table 1.1

T Walker

Osborne’s Budget Is An Admission of Policy Failure

.600ZOsborne’s Budget Is An Admission of Policy Failure

Michael Burke

Adopting a ‘Budget for Growth’ now is really a tacit admission of failure by the Tory-led coalition. The economy was already growing when they took office. Because of that, two key indicators were falling- unemployment and the deficit.

Now, there is renewed economic weakness. The ‘independent’ Office for Budget Responsibility has continued to cut its forecasts for growth as a result of government policy. In its June 2010 forecasts the OBR projected 2.3% growth this year. That was cut to 2.2% in November and has now been cut again – to just 1.7%. The trend is down because of government economic policy- nothing else; the world economy is performing at least as strongly as the OBR forecast. Despite George Osborne’s claims in the Commons, future British economic growth has also been downgraded, from 2.8% in 2012 to 2.6% and now just 2.5%. This is exceptionally weak growth coming out of a severe recession.

Because of government spending cuts the economy was sent into a tail-spin in final quarter of 2010. This resumed contraction in the economy has inevitably also led to a reversal of the favourable trends in those two indicators. Unemployment is rising once more and the latest data on public finances shows that the year-long downtrend in the deficit has gone into reverse.

Unemployment & the Deficit

The OBR’s forecasts for unemployment have also risen, so unemployment in 2011 and 2012 was originally 8% and 7.6%. Now these have risen to 8.2% and 8.1%. Similarly, deficit forecasts have also risen under the impact of slower growth. Initially OBR had projected a public sector net borrowing requirement of 7.5% and 5.5% of GDP in the next Financial Year (FY) and in FY2011/12. Now these have risen to 7.9% and 6.2%.

This gives the lie to the central claim of government policy – that all these cuts are necessary to reduce the public sector deficit. Their policies have led to a renewed widening of the deficit.


None of this is to say that the OBR is a truly independent body, as it uses the Treasury economic model or to endorse its forecasts. In fact, its forecasting record is poor. First it underestimated the growth of the economy arising from the increase in government spending under Labour, and pushed up its growth forecast by 0.6% for 2010 in November. Then, repeating the same error, it underestimated the negative impact on growth arising the Tory-led coalition’s cuts, and slashed its estimate of 2010 growth back to 1.3%.

Even now, the OBR is on the optimistic side of growth projections. As David Blanchflower has pointed out the OECD forecasts lower growth than the OBR’s 1.7% and 2.5% in 2012, projection instead 1.5% an 2%, as does the CBI (1.8% and 2.3%) while the consensus among private forecasters is 1.8% and 2.1%. Yet the OBR’s forecasts would still make this the weakest recovery from recession since the 1930s.

Budget Measures

The Budget does nothing to alter the negative economic effects of government policy. Osborne described it as ‘fiscally neutral’, that is will have no net impact on the level of government spending or revenue on the economy . This means going ahead with plans for massive spending cuts and tax increases beginning in April that were announced last June and last October in the Budget and the Comprehensive Spending Review.

The downturn was caused by the government’s decision to withdraw £9.4bn from the economy in the financial year just about to end. But its plans to withdraw a further £41bn from the economy this year through spending cuts and tax increases on middle income earners and the poor are unchanged.

This is equivalent to 2.7% of GDP, and requires heroic assumptions about the willingness of the private sector to make up that shortfall. In fact, as the recent survey from the Institute for Chartered Accountants in England and Wales makes clear, the private sector is struggling under the weight of government cuts, with nearly half of firms (47%) reporting lay-offs as a result.

  • Taxation. The government is cutting corporation taxes and other taxes on businesses. It seems to believe low taxes necessarily attract businesses. That is incorrect, and can in fact store up serious imbalances in the economy. Iceland and Ireland have the lowest taxes in the OECD – and are not an advert for low taxes! Germany has the highest corporate tax rate in the EU – and Europe’s most successful economy. But what the tax cuts do show is that we aren’t all in this together – tax cuts for the wealthy while the poor and middle incomes are clobbered. It also means tax revenues are lowered.
  • Deregulation. The likelihood is we will only see the full economic picture as supplementary Budget docs are released, but lightening anti-money laundering rules is not a good start. Enterprise Zones were tried and failed under Mrs Thatcher- they simply tend to shift jobs from one location to another at significant cost to the Treasury.
  • Education The Chancellor trumpeted support for university technical colleges and apprenticeship schemes. But this is the government which has trebled higher education fees and abolished EMA which will be hugely damaging to the requirement to create a highly educated workforce.
  • Pensions. But the elderly will also suffer. Osborne announced his intention to continuously push the retirement age higher, meaning that some young people yet to enter the workforce may never achieve a decent retirement, especially as pension contributions are set to rise by 3% and there is the threat to implement the Hutton Review into pensions, meaning lower pensions, higher contributions and many pushed out of public sector schemes altogether.
  • Tax Avoidance. Osborne introduced measures he said would yield £1bn in closing tax loopholes and avoidance of a total of £14bn, yet the HMRC has previously said the total ‘tax gap’ of uncollected taxes was £42bn in the last FY . But even this miserably small effort is a tribute to the campaigning efforts of those in ukuncut and false economy who have done been highlighting Britain’s biggest tax dodgers and campaigning against them.
  • Fuel stabiliser. Taxes have been increased on oil & gas companies to pay for a cut in the fuel duty stabiliser and fuel duty. But the Tory-led coalition’s increase in VAT raised the price of fuel at the petrol pump by a far greater amount than these cuts, a 3p rise versus a 1p cut. This is a typical Tory con, well practised by Tory Mayor Boris Johnson in London where a freeze in the Council Tax is more than offset by soaring fares.
  • Raising the Personal Allowance. Raising the personal allowance before income tax paid to £8,015 per annum is billed as a measure to benefit the poor. But this is untrue. The very poorest, including students, the retired, the unemployed and many part-time workers don’t earn enough to get caught in the tax threshold. The real beneficiaries are much higher earners, who enjoy the full benefit of the allowance until they reach the higher earnings’ tax rate.
  • Green Investment Bank (GIB). It’s welcome that that the funding for the GIB is being increased to £3bn – after the widespread criticism that the original £1bn was pathetically small. But even the new amount is wholly inadequate to the pressing task of carbon-emission reduction and will not be lending to any projects before 2015. It is as if Osborne is determined that no government investment at all take place which might soften the blows he is inflicting on middle-income earners and the poor.


The alternative should be clear, and it cannot be slower, shallower, more anguished cuts that many on the Labour front benches still favour. In fact the thankfully unimplemented March 2010 Budget authored by Alistair Darling and Peter Mandelson would have imposed £26bn in spending cuts and tax increases this year, compared to Osborne’s £41bn – somewhat shallower but nearly treble the fiscal tightening seen to date. If Labour is frightened by the reaction in the financial markets to a pro-growth economic policy, it shouldn’t be. As elsewhere, it is this government’s economically damaging policies which have led Moody’s ratings’ agency to question the sovereign credit rating.

The key to economic recovery remains government investment. Business investment fell by 18.8% in 2009 and accounts for three-quarters of the entire decline in GDP. By contrast, government investment rose by 14.1%, while current spending rising by 1%. It was this that laid the basis for the modest economic recovery in late 2009 through 2010, which led to falling unemployment and a falling deficit. This government has hit the brakes hard on investment in 2010 and now is in reverse, with a 12% fall in government investment planned for this year. Inevitably, this is already producing a renewed rise in unemployment and a renewed rise in the public sector deficit.

Low corporate taxes, deregulation and lower public spending are not even designed to restore economic growth and reduce the deficit. As the Wall Street Journal helpfully points out, their true purpose is the reduction in wages in both the private and public sectors, leading to higher profits . A policy based on restarting growth, reducing unemployment and actually reducing the deficit has to begin with the opposite policy to Osborne – that is it has to support investment, not cuts.

The Hutton Report Is An Attack On All Workers

.765ZThe Hutton Report Is An Attack On All WorkersBy Michael Burke

Millions of workers will have to work longer, make higher pensions contributions and receive lower pensions in retirement, if the recommendations of the Hutton Report are adopted. That the Tory-led coalition is able to turn to a Blairite Labour former minister to build a consensus for this attack is itself a scandal. But the scandal deepens once the report is examined.

It calls for pensions to be related to career-average earnings (dubbed CARE in the Report), rather than final salaries, for increased pension employees’ contributions, for an increase in the retirement age and lower pension entitlements. In addition, it is recommended that a large swathe of private sector workers (both ‘outsourced’ and contract workers) be removed from the Local Government Pension Scheme altogether, despite the fact that these entitlements, like the others have formed part of work contracts.

But not a single of one of these proposals is costed or specified in detailed terms. Instead, the bulk of the 215-page report is devoted to a lengthy argument on the supposed superiority of CARE-based pension over final salary ones. There is no justification for stating this without specifying the level of pensions and the contributions to support them – which is not done.

Instead, the thrust of the Report is aimed at boosting the case for severely reduced pensions, without ever making the case for this. Instead, talk of ‘unprecedented’ rises in longevity since World War II is designed to create an air of crisis. In fact, to take a comparison, life expectancy at birth rose by approximately 30 years in Britain between 1800 and 1840, and has risen by approximately 8 years since WWII. The improvement in longevity, in short, is clearing slowing, if not reaching a plateau but throughout the entire previous historical period pension entitlements were being established or were increasing and not being cut and falling.

This adoption of a scare tactic is fatally undermined by the second chart reproduced in the Hutton Report itself. It shows that the proportion of GDP devoted to public sector pension schemes will fall dramatically in coming years on current policy settings, that is without any of Hutton’s ‘reforms’. The chart is shown below.

Chart 1

The chart is from a commissioned report from the Government Actuary’s Department. This shows that the proportion of GDP devoted to public sector pensions will peak at just 1.9% in the current Financial Year (FY) 2010/11 (ending in April this year) and that it will fall to just 1.4% in FY 2059/60. The fan chart shows a distribution of outcomes by likelihood based on assumption about the growth in productivity, the public sector workforce and longevity. But even in the highest-case scenario, the pensions payout is just over 1.5%, much lower than currently, and in the lowest-case it is a little over 1.2% of GDP.

There is therefore no substance to the claim of a public sector pensions crisis. Assertions that there is a crisis are a fallacy, which are designed to create an atmosphere where cuts to pensions are acceptable.

The Cost of Pensions

Using the Hutton data, the outlay on public sector pensions amounted to under £27bn in the current FY. This is less than the payout on private sector pensions. In the boom years of FY 2007/08, that is before the recession, this private sector pensions payout was £35bn, which was lower than all the combined subsidies offered by the government towards private sector pension, which amounted to £37.6bn Therefore, the entire payout from private sector pensions in that year did not arise from the returns on investment, still less their efficient identification by pension fund managers. Instead, it came directly from taxpayers, with over five million of them in the public sector, and a greater number in the private sector with little or no pension provision themselves. It is the private, not the public sector pension provision which is crisis and in need of subsidy.

This is not an argument against the benefits received by pensioners in the private sector. But, noting the inherent inefficiency of private sector pensions, there is a clear case for bringing them into the public sector, to achieve a more efficient return.

The Hutton Report also shows the annual payout for public sector pensions. This is show in the chart below.

Chart 2

Hutton focuses on the unfairness of the pensions payout, which is undeniable. Higher earners receive a higher proportionate payout than the low-paid, although Hutton’s CARE option is not sure to redress that. But he neglects entirely a glaring point from the data, that a public sector worker has to be in retirement much longer than in public sector employment simply to get their own contributions back. For the higher paid this is 2.5 years longer in retirement and for the low paid this is 3 years in retirement for every year in work. As many public sector workers (teachers health workers, civil servants, social workers, etc.) can spend a working lifetime in public service, many will never even receive their contributions made. Even any moderate increase in contributions will ensure that this applies to the overwhelming majority of public sector workers- they are not a cost to the State, but are subsidising it.

Finally, the ‘cost’ of public sector pensions is a fraction of other items of spending, for example the military budget. This is currently 2.6% of GDP, but as leading economist have noted, this stated total is only a proportion of the hidden costs of British military spending. However, while British military spending produces only destruction and mayhem overseas, and fat bonanzas for corrupt arms’ manufacturers , spending on pensions produces economic well-being, increased demand and smoothed incomes over a lifetime, all of which contribute to the economy. These in turn provide sizeable returns to government as output, demand and profits are all boosted, which all in turn boost tax revenues and lower outlays in areas such as healthcare.

This economic and fiscal benefit of public sector pensions is entirely ignored by Hutton. But it should not be ignored by anyone who wants an economy to grow by placing the wellbeing of its citizens at its core.

T Walker

Structural deficit denial?

.051ZStructural deficit denial?

By George Irvin

The following article explains what is a ‘structural budget deficit’ and how this concept is misused by those attempting to justify Tory cuts.

* * *

In a recent Guardian piece, George Osborne accused Labour of a ‘reality deficit’ in attacking his deficit reduction plan, since they themselves proposed much the same.[1] Indeed, the notion that Britain must close the ‘structural’ budget gap by some combination of cuts in government spending and tax increases was accepted by Alistair Darling and not merely by Osborne. What’s wrong with Osborne’s argument?

A ‘structural’ deficit is defined as one not associated with recession. The view that the budget gap is mainly structural – as opposed to cyclical – has allowed Mr Osborne to argue that it was Labour’s spending, not the recession, which ‘caused’ the budget gap. In the words of Robert Chote, then Director of the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) and main author of their 2009 Green Budget:

Labour entered the current crisis with one of the largest structural budget deficits in the industrial world and a bigger debt than most OECD countries, having done less to reduce debt and – in particular – borrowing than most since 1997.[2]

It should be added that the IFS, though often characterised in the media as one of Britain’s most influential independent think tanks, played a key role in promoting the notion that Britain’s structural deficit had grown far too large. The Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR), initially under Alan Budd but currently under Chote, has peddled the same argument.[3] But the most pessimistic view of all has come from the Treasury, which has argued that the structural deficit accounts for as much as two-thirds of the total deficit.[4]

What is the difference between the so-called ‘cyclical’ and ‘structural’ components of the deficit? During a downswing in the business cycle, tax receipts fall and social spending on items such as unemployment benefit increases, thus giving rise to the so-called cyclical component of the deficit. This component is self-liquidating since the opposite happens during the business cycle upswing. So the budget should balance over the cycle as a whole unless -and this is the crux of the matter – there is a further ‘structural deficit’; ie, a gap between current receipts and revenue which remains even when the economy returns to growth with full employment.

At this point, the argument gets a bit more complicated. During a run-of-the-mill recession, the economy may turn down for a period but soon recovers its previous path—the so-called ‘potential output’ path. In a serious and prolonged downturn such as the one we are experiencing in Britain, part of the country’s productive capacity is lost forever, thus permanently shrinking the tax base and reducing the employment and output potential. When this happens, economists have serious difficulty predicting both by how much potential output has fallen, and how long it will take to get back to the (now lower) full-employment non-inflationary growth path, sometimes abbreviated as NAIRU. Moreover, the story is even more complicated if any external inflationary pressure exists since it is claimed the non accelerating rate of unemployment (NAIRU) may be higher than that which prevailed before the recession.

For example, the Treasury and the OBR differ in their respective forecasts of the ‘recovery’ rates of growth the UK will experience between now and 2015. And on the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC), Andrew Sentance has recently argued that firmer action must be taken to combat the inflationary danger, inter alia, because the gap between current output and potential output, or output gap, may be smaller than we think.[5]

Nevertheless, there are serious reasons for believing that the notions of structural deficit, output gap, and NAIRU are all quite shaky. First, NAIRU is notoriously difficult to quantify, particularly at present when inflation is largely imported and wage pressure on prices is negligible.

Secondly, how large is the output gap? If the pre-2008 trend-line for output is taken as the reference point, the gap measured as a share of GDP is currently 11%. But the Treasury now thinks that 6.5% of GDP has been permanently lost, leaving the (reduced) output gap at 4.5%. If Britain’s output, employment and tax base has shrunk that much, it helps explain why the Treasury believes the two-thirds of Britain’s deficit is now structural; ie, the reduction in full capacity output means that Britain can no longer ‘afford’ to spend as much as it could in ‘normal’ times.

Thirdly, the budget (or ‘government savings’) gap cannot be separated analytically speaking from the other national accounting savings identities. For simplicity, assume that the external current account remains constant – in reality, a tenable assumption. For a given level of national income, if the private sector decides to save more (say in order to rebuild its savings), the public sector must spend more by definition. In short, policy makers lack the autonomy to reduce public spending without having an impact on other variables – in particular, the level of national income (as the Irish and Greek cases clearly demonstrate).

Fourthly, the structural deficit argument depends on assuming a fixed structure of revenue. But the tax-revenue response to each percentage point rise in income is not carved in stone; it can be changed through tax reform. In 2010, a study undertaken for Compass indicated that a further £50bn per annum in tax (about 4% of GDP) could be raised merely by raising the tax paid by the top decile group whose overall percentage tax contribution is currently smaller than that of the bottom 10% of households.[6] Indeed, a Tobin tax of only 0.05% would bring in even more.[7]

Finally, the obvious rejoinder to the argument that the structural deficit is higher because potential output (and output gap) is now lower is to call for more public investment directed towards increasing the economy’s output potential. Such investment – say in modernising infrastructure – would have two effects. It would both help to ‘crowd in’ private investment while, through the multiplier effect, raising national income and employment and thus tax receipts.[8]

Chris Dillow, a columnist for the Investors’ Chronicle, has summed up the case against the structural deficit concept admirably. As he argues, there are some countries with large structural deficits but low debt-to-GDP ratios in which the bond markets still have confidence, while there are others with much smaller structural deficits which the bond markets have turned against;

I fear, then, that the idea of a structural deficit serves a political rather than analytical function. It’s a pseudo-scientific concept which serves to legitimate what is in fact a pure judgment call – that borrowing needs cutting. By all means, make this call. Just don’t think that talk of a structural deficit helps enlighten us.[9]

The next time you hear George Osborne reassert the overriding need to eliminate Britain’s structural deficit during this Parliament, ask yourself whether his call is anchored in sound economics or merely in right-wing shrink-the-state ideology.


[1] See

2 See

3 See

4 See

5 See

6 See

7 See

8 I am grateful to Michael Burke for emphasising this argument.

9 See; also /?docid=1258

The high stakes in the battle for union rights in Wisconsin

.399ZThe high stakes in the battle for union rights in Wisconsin

By Michael Burke

There are reports that protestors in Tahrir (Liberation) Square in Cairo are among the worldwide donors of pizza to the protestors in Wisconsin! The protestors have occupied the Capitol Building in an attempt to block passage of a union-busting bill adopted by the State’s Republicans. While the world has been enthralled by the Arab revolution, its militants have provided a practical demonstration of international solidarity.

The struggles in Egypt and Wisconsin are evidently not on the same plane, but they are linked. The global economic and financial crisis which began in 2007 has impacted all countries. In the colonial and semi-colonial world, the daily struggle for food has grown over into a wider uprising against unemployment, economic degradation, autocracy and national humiliation. In the ‘Western’ economies, the defensive struggle against the ‘austerity’ drive includes cuts in public spending, unemployment and falling standards of living. But in both cases it is in response to a determined effort to ensure that is workers and the poor who pay for the crisis- and that capital will restore its fortunes at the expense of labour.


In Wisconsin Governor Walker is leading an assault on collective-bargaining by all State employees, with no negotiating rights on benefits and pay linked to the consumer price index- challengeable only by State-wide referendum. This is a classic tactic of pitting public workers against those in the private sector, who are themselves experiencing a sharp fall in living standards and watching their publicly-provided services being cut for everything from teachers, to firefighters, police and sanitation.

The US media had overwhelmingly supported the Governor, with the Wall Street Journal recycling the right-wing talkshow epithet ‘Mad Town’ to describe the protests against Walker’s ‘very modest proposals’. Some the media hostility has retreated, though, in the face of opinion polls showing 61% US public opinion approval for the protestors, who have at times numbered just under 100,000, with only the top income earners supporting the measures . Instead, the media has attempted to shift the terrain by portraying the local unions, who have little recent history of militancy, as ‘thwarting the democratic will’ by opposing the recently-elected State legislature. This is an entirely specious argument as it overlooks the small matter than no elected official stood on anything like a union-busting programme in the election.

The unions have already agreed pay and benefit cuts as well as job losses. The further assault by the governor has a different agenda, that of union-busting, and the consequent drop in living standards which would follow from it is what is at stake.

The type of wage reductions that are envisaged have already been achieved in the US private sector. Furthermore during the last significant economic crisis of US capitalism, Ronald Reagan broke the air-traffic controllers’ union PATCO (who had supported his election!). Infamously, the union leaders were arrested, jailed and fined, having been led manacled and bound for the TV news. The union was fined and then broken by decertification. A clear massage was sent to all other unions.

As a result of such methods, In the US private sector union density declined from 30% in the 1960s to 7% currently. Union militancy plummeted. Real weekly earnings fell from $300 in 1979 to $260 in 1996, despite rising economic activity and productivity. Former Federal Reserve Governor Alan Greenspan called the breaking of PATCO Reagan’s ‘most important domestic initiative’. 1

But the US public sector has remained much more highly unionised – although at a level that is low by international standards. Just under 40% of US public sector workers are unionised. In some states, such as California and New York, that proportion is much higher. The aim is to break US unions in the public sector in order to drive down wages generally across the whole economy. In a familiar story, all this has nothing to do with reducing the US budget deficit- Wisconsin turned down Federal funds for investment in transport and broadband which would have generated new revenues. Already States such as Ohio and Indiana have signalled they will follow suit, and in a complete distortion of reality, a much larger group of Republican-led states describing themselves as the ‘right to work’ states, intend to introduce legislation even further curbing union power.

Not Just Wisconsin

Of course all this has implications not just for the US but in all the Western economies which take their policy lead from it – most especially Britain. While the Financial Times states it regrets the false claim that the union-busting is about saving money, it supports the offensive, likening the US assault on the the public sector unions to Murdoch’s attack on the print unions in the UK and expressing the hope that unions have had their day.

Before Murcoch’s assault on the print unions the Thatcher government’s introduction of severe anti-trade union laws, combined with the defeat of the miners’ strike of 1984-85, devastated trade union membership for a generation. As Chart 1 below shows, labour’s share of national income fell sharply as a result. The Tory-led government in Britain, led by the Tory Mayor of London, have already discussed curbing unions in the public sector and banning strikes. They, and all the reactionary forces in the world such as the tottering Arab regimes, which have faced sporadic strike protests to underpin the uprisings, would only take encouragement if the Wisconsin Governor is successful. Wisconsin may not at present be receiving the same attention as the truly historic events in the Arab countries but it deserves close attention by those who stand for progress left and total support by those who want to defend living standards everywhere.

Chart 1

11 03 01 Wages


1. Separately, Greenspan has argued that Reagan’s great global achievement was the overthrow of the Soviet Union, and the US boom that followed was a result of the capital outflow then from the whole of Eastern Europe. However, since that led to the US bubble, he has since modified this to suggest that the fall of the Berlin Wall led to the bubble

The government and Bank of England set a course to undermine recovery

.759ZThe government and Bank of England set a course to undermine recovery

By Michael Burke

This week it was revealed from the minutes of the meetings of the Bank of England’s (BoE) Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) that there is a growing faction in favour of an immediate rise in interest rates. Two days later the revised UK GDP data for the 4th quarter of 2010 was released showing that the economic contraction had in fact been even sharper than previously estimated – a fall of 0.6% in the quarter. The official statisticians now concede that, while heavy snow exaggerated the decline, the economy would have contracted even without it by falling 0.1%.

The pattern of MPC voting had already shown that two members at the previous meeting had voted for a 0.25% rate rise. This grouping has now hardened and expanded with to one member voting for an immediate rate rise of 0.5% and two others supporting a 0.25% hike. This faction thoroughly misunderstands both the current trends in the British economy as well as having a flawed theoretical framework.

All MPC members will argue that their role is to anticipate trends in the economy and look beyond the immediate data. But for the majority, the MPC members who are drawn from the Bank and the two other proponents of higher rates, this confidence in their own approach seems misplaced.

Short term economic forecasting is always fraught with difficulties. Because economic data is always released after the fact, and policymaking takes place to affect future activity, formulating the appropriate policy has been likened to ‘driving a car while staring in the rear-view mirror’. There is therefore a huge premium placed on any evidence of future activity.

The chart below is compiled from the BoE’s Agent’s report, which compiles survey evidence of the outlook for economy from 700 businesses across all the regions. This report is relied upon by the Bank and others as a forward-looking series of surveys which looks beyond the published economic data.

Figure 1

11 02 26 Chart1

Gavyn Davies, in his blog in the Financial Times, is among those who relied on this evidence when arguing that the initial GDP estimate was ‘too bad to be true’ and despite the downward revision to GDP he continues to argue that there must be a sharp rebound in activity.

The trouble with relying on these surveys is that, although they purport to be forward-looking data, they are actually lagging indicators – and based on business sentiment, which is hardly immune from government and media efforts to talk up activity. Take a look at the chart. GDP began to contract in early 2008 – before any of the surveys turned negative. And the only one that came close to matching the trough in GDP was retail sales. The evidence therefore shows these surveys are lagging, not leading indicators.
Take another look at the chart. Retail sales have been trending down since mid-2010 and the most up-to-date survey from the CBI (which is not shown in the chart) shows sales plummeting in February. To get back to flat, or zero growth for the latest two quarters combined, GDP in the 1st quarter of 2011 will have to rise by 0.6%. To get to something like trend growth over the 2 quarters, which is usually held to be 2.25%, GDP in the 1st quarter of 2011 will have to rise by 1.7% – an extremely unlikely development.

The reason this error can be made in interpretation of the data is probably that it conforms to a preconceived notion – the misplaced idea that growth will rebound sharply, which is itself based on an incorrect theoretical framework. Linked to this is the notion of an ‘Expansionary Fiscal Contraction’ (EFC) – the idea that that an economy can expand even while government spending its cut severely. However, the IMF has examined more than 30 episodes of EFC identified by the original authors of this concept, and found only two where the economy did expand – Denmark from 1983 and Ireland from 1987. 1

GDP contraction

After the worst recession since the 1930s, the current recovery is also set to be the weakest since that time. This too runs counter to the prevailing orthodoxy which, until relatively recently, held that the sharper the recession the more rapid the rebound.

There is likely to be positive growth recorded in the 1st quarter of 2011, if only because some activity was held over from the 4th quarter of last year, especially in sectors such as construction. However, as already noted, merely to achieve zero growth over the two-quarter period would require a rise of 0.6% in 1st quarter 2011 GDP, while anything like trend growth would require 1.7% growth in the quarter. This is not unprecedented, but in the current environment of reductions in government spending, and flat income growth, it seems highly unlikely.

The greater detail provided by the latest data release shows that the renewed downturn in investment (gross fixed capital formation) accounted for two-thirds of the 0.6% decline in GDP. Precise information will await the final data release, but business investment fell once more in the 4th quarter and the private sector’s contribution to construction investment is also likely to have been negative. In the data up to the 3rd quarter of 2010, the private sector’s investment strike was responsible for three-quarters of the recession.

From the perspective of businesses, this is a rational response to the government’s own announced, but as yet unimplemented, programme of spending cuts and tax increases for average incomes and the poor. These cuts will only begin to bite in the 1st quarter of this year. But the fanfare with which they have been announced means that any private firm dependent on contracts for schools rebuilding, local authority spending, hospital upgrades or in any area of central or local government spending could only expect lower orders. Lay-offs, short-time working and cutbacks in investment are inevitable.

Renewed economic weakness and rising unemployment this year are a function of Tory-led government policy. It seems as if the MPC is set on a course to hike interest rates later this year – and will pile on the misery.


1. Even considering these two cases in Ireland, the IMF ignores the extremely large subventions from the European Union at that time, an external source of investment which boosted growth dramatically. In the case of Denmark, the present author is not in a position to assess the underlying dynamics, but it should be noted that the Danish fiscal contraction was minuscule compared to current government policy in this county and elsewhere, less than 0.5% of GDP.

Unemployment in Tory recessions

.928ZUnemployment in Tory recessions

By Michael Burke

Unemployment has risen by 44,000 in the latest 3-month period to December and employment has fallen by 68,000. These represent a renewed phase in the recent deterioration in employment, which had been on a very moderate improving trend.

The jobless total rose substantially during the recession. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), total employment fell by 600,000 during the six quarters of recession , and continued to fall during the recovery (although ONS does not take into account net job losses in the run-up to the recession) . The unemployment total also continued to rise through the recession and did not peak until it reached 2.506 million in February 2010. Between February and August last year unemployment fell to 2.448 million, a small improvement of 58,000 reflecting the modest recovery that had begun in Q4 2009. However, unemployment has contracted once more and unemployment has since risen back to 2.492 million in the latest data. The recent trends in unemployment are shown in Chart 1 below.

Chart 1

Recessions Compared

In the current recession employment continued to fall until February 2010 so that the total decline in jobs was 763,000 as a result of the recession – 600,000 lost while GDP contracted to September 2009 and another 163,000 in subsequent months. In the two previous recessions under Thatcher and Major, the slump in jobs was much greater even though the fall in output was not nearly so great.

In the table below we show the impact on jobs arising from the last 3 recessions.

Table 1. Impact of Recessions on Changes in Employment

The first point to note is that the total loss of jobs in this slump is much lower than under the two Tory governments – despite the loss in output being almost equivalent to the prior two recessions combined. Second, the change in employment post-recession has been unusually positive in the current period.

Changes in employment and unemployment tend to lag behind changes in output as firms do not immediately begin firing when output falls, and are slow to rehire when it begins to rise. The improvement in employment was in response to the improvement in the economy from the end of 2009 onwards and the assumption that it would continue limiting the destruction of jobs. Third, the renewed downturn in employment represents a break in that trend. In effect, the impact of policy is being brought into line with the previous recessions under Tory governments.

The policy difference in the different recessions is marked. The decline in employment in the latest recession was more muted than in the two preceding recessions. In addition, the resumption of net job creation was much earlier than in the two preceding recessions. The net job losses arising from the recession were therefore much lower, less than 400,000 compared to over 1.6 million in both prior cases. While the misery and waste caused by those 400,000 net job losses could have been avoided with a much bolder policy, there is a qualitative difference in outcomes for jobs between the policies adopted in the latest recession and those adopted by the two previous Tory governments.

Policy Aims

The crucial difference lies in policy, and its aims. In both the 1980s and 1990s, under different guises of ‘monetarism’ and ‘bearing down on inflation’, Tory governments actively pursued a policy of increasing the rate of unemployment. On this occasion the purported reason is deficit-reduction. But the content is the same. Cuts to public spending were combined with changes to the tax regime which favoured business and high income earners. This reduced aggregate demand via driving unemployment higher and average wages lower thereby reducing consumption demand.

In all three cases the private sector had become a net saver via reducing investment. The response of the Thatcher and Major governments was not to increase its own investment, but to parallel the private sector’s investment strike. The aim of this, combined with privatisation of existing industries or state functions, was to increase the output of the private sector even with its investment rate remaining low. The effect of these measures combined to increase the rate of profit. In Marxist terms, this is the capitalist dream, to be able to ‘sell without buying’, that is to increase output without first investing.

The tensions inside the last Labour government arose because many, probably a majority of the Cabinet, led by Peter Mandelson and including Alistair Darling, wanted to emulate this approach. Their parting shot was the March 2010 Budget, described by its official author the Chancellor as ‘worse than Thatcher’. But the fact is that this budget was never implemented by New Labour. Instead, the prior Budget in 2009 increased government spending and investment. It was this that underpinned the recovery and the unusual improvement in employment.

The improvement in employment, like the improvement in the economy (and the reduction in the public sector deficit since) all flow from that policy decision. Had the measures adopted been bolder, their effects on employment, growth and the deficit would have been that much greater. However timidly implemented, this policy does begin to meet the objective needs of the economy as a whole. But it does not meet the imperative to increase profits.

Threat of Higher Rates

It is perhaps a coincidence that the first increases in interest rates following the 1980s and 1990s recession were both precisely 15 quarters after the end of the recession (in July 1984 and September 1994 respectively). The current recovery is only 5 quarters in duration, and yet both Cameron and Osborne have been campaigning for higher rates , even if the contraction in Q4 GDP has made those calls more muted. The campaign is eagerly echoed by City pundits. This is not because this recovery is stronger than its predecessors- it is significantly weaker .

The stated objective of the higher rates policy is to halt the rise in inflation. The latest data show that on the broad Retail Prices Index (RPI) measure inflation is 5.1%. But the effects of increases in indirect taxation have been to raise the price level by 1.6%. The Bank of England Governor Mervyn King, writing to the Chancellor to explain the overshoot refers primarily to the global rise in commodities’ prices as the driver of inflation. It is possible that higher interest rates could curb the growth of imported price inflation by raising the value of Sterling. But the appreciation of the currency could only be short-lived if, as seems likely, a tighter monetary policy acted to dampen growth even further. The official response to higher prices should be a series of administrative measures to lower them, including a reversal of the decision to hike VAT but also in the regulation of utility and transport prices.

At the time of writing, financial market expectations for higher short-term interest rates are approximately that the base rate will be 1.5% by year-end, representing four interest rate hikes of 0.25% each. These expectations have themselves been gyrating wildly, especially as King’s letter to Osborne seemed to imply that hitting the inflation target over the medium-term would require adopting the financial market’s aggressive assumptions on interest rate hikes.

This comes close to outsourcing the normal setting of interest rates from the unelected technocrats of the Monetary Policy Committee directly to the interests of the financial markets themselves, close to the system adopted by the Swiss central bank. This would be a thoroughly regressive step, codifying the City’s dominance over key aspects of policymaking in its own interests – and one not even contemplated by Thatcher or Major.

But it would complement the general thrust of policy, which is an increasingly vicious project to drive down the living standards of the overwhelming majority of society in order to boost the profits of capital, and in Britain its dominant section, the banks.