Monday 13 January 2014

Why the economy still needs rebalancing

"It's far too soon to say 'job done'. It's not even half done. That's why 2014 is the year of hard truths."

So said Nick Clegg in an interview on the Andrew Marr show.  He was talking about the economy, and he was absolutely right - the economy may be on its way towards recovery, but it is a long way from there yet.

Yet there is a hard truth which does need to be articulated.  It takes nothing away from the coalition's success in pushing the economy out of the hole in landed in by 2008.  That is, and will remain a Lib Dem success, but there is an absolutely vital element which has only just begun.

I don't know whether this is what the Lib Dem leader meant when he said the job was "not even half done".  But I hope it was, because the part needs to be clear what the objective is.  We need to be reassured that the objective is still the same as it was back in 2010: rebalancing the economy.

I say this because I fear the great objective of rebalancing was allowed to slip down the agenda since then.  The coalition has focused its attentions on the systemic risk to the financial system to banks operating under the safe umbrella of the government guarantee. But too little has been done so far to tackle the other banking problem – the lack of choice or competition in the banking sector, and the resulting sidelining of small businesses compared with other countries.

Yes, there is the seven-day switch regulations, which means more competition in the existing baning sector, but the existing sector is inadequate for the needs of the economy.

This is a Lib Dem issue.  It may even be the Lib Dem issue.  The closest to a proposed solution at the last general election in 2010 was in the Lib Dem manifesto, which promised to: “Break up the banks and get them lending again to protect real businesses”. This was translated in the coalition agreement along these lines:

“We want the banking system to serve business, not the other way round. We will bring forward detailed proposals to foster diversity in financial services, promote mutuals and create a more competitive banking industry. We will develop effective proposals to ensure the flow of credit to viable SMEs.” 

Let's face it; this has not yet been achieved.  Ed Miliband has made noises to suggest that he is moving in this direction, and it would be galling for Lib Dems to be outflanked on an issue that was once their own.

And don't let's pretend any of this is simple.  The UK economy has been pretty unbalanced since the Industrial Revolution, which the City failed to fund.  Keynes had another go via the Macmillan Committee in 1930.  It is the most important unfinished business of the nation.

It also seems to me that only the Lib Dems can achieve it.  But don't let's pretend it will require a little tweaking here and there.  It is a big project and, as Clegg said, "it is not even half done".  If that's what he meant...

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