During the Labour years London grew fastest, Scotland, Wales and the North slowest. The more public money Labour threw at the poorer and slower growing areas, the more the gap grew in favour of London and the South east. (1998-Q3 2006 London grew 41%, Scotland 16% – from “Freeing Britain to compete”)
The new governemnt has said they want more balanced growth around the country. On Friday the FT devoted a page to a forecast of what is likely to happen. This predicted more of the same, with a much stronger recovery and more jobs generated in London and the South East compared to the rest of the country.
The parts of the country that have the largest public sector failed to grow quickly during the years when Labour was pouring cash into them like a river in flood. Now the growth rate of public spending is to be brought right down, this source of cash will be less vigorous. That does not automatically trigger faster private sector growth.
A thoughtful Labour party in Opposition would ask themselves why did their top top down public sector spending led model fail to ignite the economies that mattered most to them in the strong Labour areas of the North and the devolved countries? Could it be that a balanced economy in any given area requires a stronger and wider ranging private sector? Did Labour’s public sector crowd out or deter the private sector in its core areas?
One of the worst mishaps was the failure of Northern Rock. Northern Rock was a Lanbour flagship. It was an apparent private sector success story, devoted to widening ownership and financing new residential development in the North East. To New Labour it was manna from heaven, a successful financial sector business growing in the North East, with its headquarters there. Was this the model of the future, the answer to Lodnon’s dominance in finance?
The long shadow of Northern’s collapse is cast on future financial enterprise, and private sector led support for other businesses in the Labour areas. The new government needs to be brave and argue in those Labour heartlands that the Labour experiment of leaading with public cash did not work. The government needs to bring the successes of London and the south east to the north, as it brings public spending as a percentage of the total down sensibly. The government’s strategy is to bring public spending’s proportion down through economic growth, taking care not to cut the overall cash expenditures.
It’s a chicken and egg problem. Years of experience shows that the more public spending there is the slower the overall growth. To bring more enterprise to the slower growing areas will take boldness to free the obstacles to enterprise. If we want many more people to run their own business, more larger businesses to set up elsewhere in the UK and more jobs to be created by free enterprise it is going to take much more work on educational success, training, deregulation and lower taxes. Above all, it requires inspiring people to believe they can do things for themselves, and to understand that if you want all your prosperity and jobs to be delivered from Whitehall you will be bitterly disappointed.