Austerity under Thatcher and the Coalition: the second time as tragedy

By Professor Deborah Mabbett, who will be delivering her inaugural lecture this evening, 8 November 2012.

In 1979, a new government came to power in Britain determined to rein in public spending and set the economy on a new path led by private innovation and enterprise. Sound familiar? There are certainly some parallels between the Thatcher government and the current Coalition, but there are also some puzzling differences. Take social security. Both tried, or are trying, to cut back this unloved area of government spending, but their cuts are quite different. Thatcher cut back the state pension, but more or less maintained the safety net of means-tested benefits. The Coalition has targeted many parts of the means-tested system for cuts, while the state pension is to be protected with a ‘triple lock’: indexed to the best of wages, prices or 2.5%. Thatcher’s policy was based on the philosophy that the state should provide a minimal, residual safety net, and the private sector would do the rest. But what philosophy guides the Coalition’s pattern of cuts?

The answer shows something important about the relationship between the government and the financial services sector. Under Thatcher, this sector was not only the great hope for the deindustrialised British economy; it also had a key role to play in privatising welfare. Council tenants exercising their right to buy would get their mortgages from the newly-liberalised building societies, while workers would entrust their pension contributions to investment funds which held out the promise of good returns, albeit reduced by large fees.  Twenty-five years on, the government was forced into a dramatic bailout of the financial system. Less noticed, it is also locked into supporting privatised welfare in expensive ways.

Problems with privatised pensions have been apparent: mis-selling, fraud and high fees have afflicted the sector. The government’s response has been to tighten the regulatory framework, while continuing to encourage contributions with generous tax incentives. Regulation was the price of making finance the agent of the government’s plans: private pensions had to be made to work, and if they didn’t, the government would step in to ‘correct’ the market.  Regulation was seen as a burden by the financial sector, but it could also be costly for the government, as the Equitable Life case showed. Equitable Life made commitments to its policyholders that it was unable to honour: the government ended up having to compensate policy-holders for ‘a decade of regulatory failure’. The failings of private sector agents could come back to bite the government.

Indexing the state pension only to prices meant that it failed to keep up with rising living standards. This was intentional: the idea was that private pension provision would expand to fill the gap. For those who lacked a private pension top-up, means-tested benefits were available. However, the rise of means-testing conflicted with the aim of expanding private provision, because workers can contribute to a pension scheme and then find that state benefits are reduced. While successive governments tried to mitigate the effects with various allowances and tapers, it remained the case that pension contributions could bring a very small return in increased retirement income.

The decision to adopt ‘automatic enrolment’ made it a necessity to do something to restrain means-testing. This policy aims to boost private pensions by relying on workers to accept ‘defaults’ in market transactions rather than actively evaluating their options. The problem with this type of ‘nudge’ is that the nudger must be quite sure that the default is in the interests of the worker. In short, the government must make private pensions pay. The triple lock on the state pension is one step towards this, as it should slow down the growth of means-testing.

Is there any alternative? A much larger compulsory state scheme would avoid many of the problems with private pensions, but apparently that is politically untenable. What makes it so is the continued power of the financial services sector. Privatisation does not stand for individual autonomy and choice – the contributing worker is a passive figure in pensions policy. Instead, privatisation stands for making policies for the financial services sector, protecting its role in provision. The result is inefficiency and expense, complex regulation and a high risk that the government picks up the tab in the end.

The Thatcher government sowed the seeds of a private welfare sector, and the Coalition has reaped an unwelcome harvest. Privatising welfare has locked government and finance into a tight embrace which neither desired but neither can bear to leave.

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