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Artillery Row

Why growth matters

It underpins many of our other hopes and plans

There was a time at the start of the Brexit debate when Remainers would argue that the public didn’t care very much about the EU. Europe always came up at the end of the list of most important issues in the polls. True, Brexiteers replied, but look at the issues that are important like immigration and the economy — all of them are affected by Europe. The public very much did care about the EU, by way of caring about all the things the EU was involved in. We are in a similar position now with the argument about economic growth.

You would rather live in the England of 2022 than 1922 or 1822

The widespread response to Liz Truss and her insistence on a GDP growth target of 2.5 per cent was to say that, of course everyone wants growth but that’s not what the public are concerned about. There was also a strand of argument that claimed that an emphasis on growth was a means of distracting from income inequality. “The concept of growth has colonised our political imaginaries,” said Matthias Schmelzer in the New Statesman. Schmelzer even wanted to embrace the term anti-growth coalition. Not everyone went that far, but the general tone was, much as Jess Philips argued, that redistribution was the real issue — not growth. On Twitter, Philips said it never comes up on the doorstep. Instead people talk about streets, services and bills.

This is an illusion. The issue the public cares most about, according to YouGov, is the economy, followed by health and immigration. You can argue that this doesn’t mean growth. As per the above, you can say that when people are concerned about the economy, they are concerned about wages. Look around: so much of what you see being discussed about the economy today is wages, wages, wages. The public aren’t unsympathetic, with even 45 per cent of Tory voters supporting the nurses’ strike. According to the Office for National Statistics, people rate the cost of living and healthcare as more important than “the economy”. When asked to name one issue only as the most critical, 48 per cent said the cost of living compared to 15 per cent for the economy.

It is a mistake to separate those two issues. Countries with the sort of welfare states admired on the left, like Norway, Sweden and Denmark, have much higher GDP per capita than the UK. Welfare and GDP are strongly correlated: richer countries really are better off in non-monetary terms. According to the OECD, social spending is higher in richer countries. Whilst GDP is not an exact measure of wellbeing in the broadest sense, it is a useful correlation. 

If you want higher wages, you need the productivity growth to pay for it. If you want to repair the streets, you need the money to fund the work. If you want generous welfare provision, it’s going to help to have GDP growing ahead of government debt. As our capital stock comes due for renewal, including in the NHS, we need to be able to afford it. 

Look at the history of GDP growth. Can we seriously be expected to believe that as the economy grew, and people became able to afford washing machines, fridges, central heating and indoor toilets, their quality of life didn’t significantly improve? Was the fact that people were able to afford more meat or purchase a television a distraction from income inequality? You would rather live in the England of 2022 than 1922 or 1822, and that is largely because we are richer and live with the immense benefits of those riches. Countries with widespread healthcare and welfare service provision tend to be rich.

Growth is the main thing we talk about when we talk about politics

To get growth, we need reform in education, energy, housing and childcare. Childcare must be cheaper to enable women to go to work without paying more to their nursery than for rent. Energy is currently a drag on overall output: it would help if you connect a new wind farm to the National Grid in less than seven years. It is currently unaffordable for many people to live in the most productive areas of the country because we refuse to build enough houses. Improvements to infrastructure would enable people to conduct business more efficiently. We must invest in our human capital, yet when the government announced a policy of maths to eighteen, the anti-growth movement was out in force mocking the idea. All of these things increase the cost of doing business and hold back progress in streets, services and bills.

Our planning processes are too long; our infrastructure costs are too high; our approval processes are too slow. Every individual item of bureaucracy probably makes sense in isolation. As Britain Remade points out, Madrid was able to build an entire metro-system for £4bn whilst it cost us £18bn to build Crossrail — ten times more on a per-mile basis. We are building the world’s largest wind farm, which will provide energy to over three million homes, but it is subject to a thirty-month planning process. In the context of the current European situation, that is shameful.

In the YouGov data that showed the economy as the number one priority, only 17 per cent said housing was a critical issue. The data had 11 per cent for education, 7 per cent for childcare, 6 per cent for transport. Energy wasn’t an option. Until we solve these problems, it will be difficult to respond meaningfully to “what comes up on the doorstep”. Until it is possible for families to buy affordable houses, to get childcare that doesn’t cost more than their mortgage, for business to buy cheaper energy, it’s hard to see how the cost of living will be more affordable. Unless we can increase government receipts without relying on ever more fiscal drag, it’s hard to know where the money for improved public services will come from. 

Without reform, the problems the public cares about cannot be solved. It’s become a dirty word, and it is easy for politicians to dismiss, but it’s time to admit that growth is the thing we talk about when we talk about politics. 

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