The IMF has no credibility in forecasting the UK economy

George Osborne has, in effect, already resorted to Plan B, because his policies are not working.

Yesterday, the IMF cut its 2011 growth forecast for the UK to 1.5 per cent but said that the government's economic policy was going along swimmingly. The Chancellor seemed to be really pleased about this endorsement. But Slasher didn't seem to notice that the IMF argued that the risks to their forecasts were "significant".

Sadly, the UK economy did not grow at all over the past six months. Consumer confidence has collapsed; business confidence is weakening; employment growth has slowed sharply; house prices are falling and the number of mortgage approvals is falling; business lending is down and there remain real risks of deflation, which I guess John Lipsky, acting head of the IMF, hasn't spotted. Over the weekend, 50 economists did spot the problem and wrote to the Observer about it. The Cabinet Office's ex-chief economist Jonathan Portes and Vicky Price, ex-head of the Government Economic Service, warned that the economy was slowing, as did Tim Besley and John Muellbauer, who had previously signed a letter in the Times supporting the government's now failing strategy. The new economics Nobel laureate, Chris Pissarides, who was also a signatory to the Times letter, also told me in an exclusive interview published in the New Statesman this week that his preferred action now is for a postponement of fiscal contraction. Growth is nowhere to be seen and the government has no plan to fix this.

The Chancellor's claim that his strategy was always flexible because of the use of automatic stabilisers amounted to an announcement of Plan B. As growth slows and unemployment rises, as it surely will, then the payments to unemployment benefits in particular start to rise. This is plainly an announcement that the speed at which the deficit is paid off will inevitably have to be slower than he had previously announced, because his policies are not working -- as I have frequently warned.

Plus, if, or more likely when, the economy starts declining further, the government would have to cut taxes and do more quantitative easing. Hence Vince Cable, Osborne and now the IMF have endorsed Adam Posen's and my long-held views: that there is a possiblity of a slow, Japanese-type recovery, hence the need for another round of asset purchases: ie Plan C.

I was particularly interested to look back to 6 August 2008, when the IMF also lowered its growth forecast for the UK economy.

The IMF predicted that the UK would grow by 1.4 per cent in 2008 and 1.1 per cent in 2009, down from the 1.8 per cent for 2008 and 1.7 per cent for 2009 that it predicted in of 2008. It said inflation at 3.8 per cent was higher than expected and inflation expectations were rising, even as economic activity was slowing. That, the IMF said, meant the Bank of England had little room to cut rates. It didn't exactly turn out that way. In August 2008, the IMF didn't even spot that the UK economy had entered recession in April that year. The IMF has no credibility in forecasting the UK economy.

Osborne has already turned, as the economy is slowing even before the public spending cuts hit. The government's economic strategy is in disarray, no matter which of Osborne's pals he gets to say otherwise.

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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