I am sat writing this the evening before the first full budget of our 2nd Tory chancellor of the last 20 years, Philip Hammond MP. We have now had a full 6 years of Tory chancellors - even if for 5 of those they were supported in Parliament by a weak and ineffective coalition partner in the Lib Dems. So, it is probably worth looking at how well those Tory chancellors and governments have done for us. By us, I mean the great British working classes. I include in that those of us lucky enough to be working, and those of us who for whatever reason can't or aren't working at the moment. It is also right and fair to measure those chancellors against what they set out as their own priorities. After all, it is not fair to only measure them against things they never promised to do.
Like most economists (and other political writers) it would be really easy for me to fall into jargon and measures that most people don't understand. Who really feels GDP, deficit, debt ratios? Whilst I want to steer clear of these as much as possible - they are necessary to consider. Mainly because these were the measures which George Osborne and then Philip Hammond have measured themselves against. But there are other measures that they feed into - and these do matter. These are how well-off we as individuals feel, and the future prospects for the economy. As well as these, there are other factors that matter - how well funded and effective our public services are; how much tax we pay and how many of us are in gainful employment.
Coming into power in 2010 was never going to be easy for any government. The world was still reeling from a financial crisis, caused by global banks, that was as severe as The Great Depression. This was impacting pretty much every country - though some worse than others. In the UK because we had bailed out the banks here we had a massive public sector debt (the amount the government owes) that had risen from under 40% to around 65% a the time of the General Election. This was the worst of all worlds - it was driven by an increasing amount of debt from bailing out the banks, a shrinking economy and a growing deficit. The deficit or surplus is the difference between how much the government is earning (basically through taxation) compared to how much it spends (on services for the people).
So whichever Chancellor came in had to do one (or all) of 3 things - grow the economy, reduce the deficit and / or reduce the overall debt the government had. The prevailing idea from George Osborne (and presumably supported at that point by the public) was to reduce the deficit, within 5 years, and thereby start to pay down the debt levels. Surely we could return to surplus? After all, we had run a surplus for the overwhelming majority of the Blair years, after the deficit laden years of the Thatcher government. This therefore gave rise to the austerity agenda - the aim being to reduce how much the government spent to get in line with what they earned.
But the Tories also inherited a number of other problems and benefits at that time. For example, we had an NHS that was the best in the world, as proven by a number of international comparative studies. This was not only in terms of the service provided, but also how much it cost to provide. Gone were the days of waiting on trolleys in corridors. We had improved standards across schools. Whilst not all of the policies used were particularly popular, they were, mostly, working. Sure Start and EMA were supported by all parties as right and necessary because of the benefits to social well-being. The unemployment rate however had taken a marked increase - meaning fewer people were working - whilst this had stayed stable around the 5% mark for the majority of the Blair years this shot up as a result of the global banking crisis to 7.5%. This had been a massive improvement - during the Thatcher years it had been between 7.5% and 10% for almost the entire period.
So across those areas, how have the Tories done? Well, let's look at deficit and debt reduction, unemployment, amount we pay in tax, and those services mentioned above one at a time.
Debt & Deficit
Since 2010, the debt as a share of GDP (the most reliable measure) has increased from 65% to 85%. In money terms, these 6 years have added £1trillion of debt. That is debt which our government must now pay back. More worryingly, the deficit is still at 3%. We were meant to be rid of both of those things by now. In fact, neither has been delivered on. We are worse off than we were.
Here, it appears, we have good news. The unemployment rate has seen a steady downward trend. It has moved from a recent high of 8.5% to 4.8%. We should all be celebrating, shouldn't we? Well, it isn't quite so rosy. 700,000 of those new jobs are zero hours contracts. That is 700,000 people who don't know if they will have work from one day to the next. We may as well go back to the days of the Labour exchange. Workers earnings have not increased - which you would expect from high employment. More people can say they have a job, but more than ever don't have enough money coming in to actually survive. So we must remain cautious if we want to say this is good news.
The level of government taxation - ie how much they take out of the economy each year to pay for public services has now increased back to levels last seen in 1986. So whilst they have spectacularly failed to reduce the deficit, they have done that whilst taking more of your money from you. Not only that, but the source of that tax has become far less friendly for you. Much less is being taken from big businesses and wealthy individuals. Instead, more tax is being taken from your wallet, by way of increases in VAT and Insurance Premium Tax. They have openly and actively taken from the poor to give to the rich. A true reverse Robin Hood.
Well, Sure Start and EMA didn't survive the first year under the Tories. Our health service is once again falling apart. This winter we had the worst performance during the winter since we started measuring such things. Junior doctors went out on strike - previously unheard of. In education there are experts, councillors (of all parties), headteachers and MPs screaming at the government to address the lack of funding. What it the response of the current government? To instead set aside money for their pet project of grammar schools and free schools. Just consider that, any extra money they find is not going to your child's school - but to open a new one that you have no say over. Teachers are leaving the profession in droves, and recruitment of new ones is drying up. We are back to poor services where only the wealthy will be okay.
So, it is amazing that we find ourselves here again. A government that can't get spending under control, where services are so poor they are a laughing stock, where only the wealthy are benefitting. Things haven't been this bad across so many measures since the early 1980s. Some would argue that there are other similarities - for example a Labour leader who is painted as a dangerous leftie by the media and who doesn't seem either willing or able to shake off the tag. What is worrying is that against this backdrop the Tories are still enjoying electoral success. This really should be a wake up call and warning to the Labour Party. The question is whether they are listening - or repeating the internal fights of the 1980s. Only time will tell. The problem is, how much of a country will we have left at the end of it?