Comment: The only 'long term' Osborne understands is until the general election

Natalie Bennett:  'This government will be remembered as one of missed opportunities'
Natalie Bennett: 'This government will be remembered as one of missed opportunities'

By Natalie Bennett

In delivering today's Autumn Statement, George Osborne appeared to really, really want to convince us that he was taking a "long-term" view. He assured us of that "fact". But it's clear that his sense of perspective is seriously askew. He's a man blinkered by his concept of long-term, which happens to last 18 months – ie until the next election.

Observers without those blinkers were commenting on just how much his view has changed.  You might remember 2010, when Mr Osborne was talking about the need to rebalance the British economy away from the financial sector and retail - for us to go back to making things which I did and still do agree with. (And I'd certainly add the desperate need to be growing things – food – to help secure our future supplies.)

All of that's gone now – Mr Osborne was keen to celebrate our 'recovery', built as it is on the pillars of sand of growing consumer debt (because so many people are having to borrow just for the basics) and a government-fuelled housing price bubble.


Talk of the need to transform the economy, to create the conditions for jobs that workers can build a life on, was notably lacking. There was nothing about measures to lift real wages: to move at least in the direction that the Green party is calling for, of making the minimum wage a living wage, ensuring that every fulltime worker earns enough money to live on.

We did have "the largest package of measures to tackle tax avoidance". That's presumably since the government's "largest-ever package" announced in March – supposed to bring in a grand total of £9 billion in the next five years.

Yet they follow the decision in 2012 to change the controlled foreign companies rules to make it easier for UK companies to shift profits into tax havens. With losses to evasion and avoidance estimated at up to £70bn a year, it would appear the chancellor is peering down the wrong end of his telescope in trying to identify and captured these lost potential revenues.

That's in contrast to his perspective on welfare spending, going again under a heavily distorted microscope. Following on, it would appear, from the government's awful immigration cap, he wants to introduce a cap on some elements of welfare spending – including housing benefit. That ignores the fact that housing benefit levels have leapt – one million extra households receiving it in the past five years, reflecting inadequate wages and the failure to rebalance regional development and build new council homes.

And above all there's an important principle that needs to be restated clearly: benefits should be supplied on the basis of need, not some artificial cap.

There was, at least, acknowledgement of the dreadful problem of youth unemployment. But the government's "solution" - abolition of National Insurance for under-21s - risks creating a whole new class of "not-quite-youth" unemployment. Decent employers, small businesses that know and work closely with their staff are unlikely to do this, but you can just imagine Amazon's slave army next year taking on a remarkably youthful hue, and workplaces of remarkable youthfulness in which 20 year and 11 month managers preside over 16-year-old juniors.

He did include the word "green" once – remember this was going to be the "greenest government ever", back in 2010?  Still, he deserves some credit at least for bare-faced cheek for not choking from the sheer effontery of his words while talking about activity not "costing the planet".

Mr Osborne is clearly having problems seeing the facts on fracking. He claimed that fracking would deliver "cheap" energy – something even the potential producers deny.  He put five paragraphs on fracking in the statement – including a further tax break to boost corporate welfare spending for the oil and gas industry. (It got £2bn in 2012 – one form of welfare that could certainly end.)

That contrasted with one paragraph on renewables – the energy source that will supply around 20% of Britain's electricity by 2020, while there's not now one operating fracking well in the country, and no chance of their being significant shale gas by that year.

Transport policy is similar wedded to the 20th-century dinosaur of fossil fuels. While the slight decrease in the rise in rail fares – from RPI+1% to RPI is better than nothing – it's still a significant rise in our massively train expensive fares. (And it’s a typically poor decision-making process that's left the industry already selling tickets that are now presumably technically illegal)

The freeze in fuel duty, while it will no doubt appeal to many hard-pressed households forced into dependence on cars by poor public transport, is money lost that could have been well spent on investing in local buses and local trains, walking and cycling, the sort of transport that could cut congestion and air pollution and provide genuinely affordable alternatives far into the future. And why if this government is so keen to cut the cost of motoring, has it been opposing tighter standards for fuel efficiency in Europe?
In his pension plans Mr Osborne was looking forward decades – suggesting he could somehow control the retirement plans of today's 18-year-olds.  But this is not a statement that will be remembered as being of any significance in two years' time, let alone 20.

This government will be remembered as one of missed opportunities, of having limped along on a failed model of the British economy without the vision to even begin constructing a new one.

And Mr Osborne? Well remember his name as the answer to a really obscure pub quiz question in 2030 – it might just win your team the match.

Natalie Bennett is leader of the Green party.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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