It may be too late to prevent recession

George Osborne's policies have failed. He talked down the economy -- and now it is sinking.

The data releases this week have all been bad for the coalition. It started in the United States, which matters because generally what happens there is repeated in the UK a few months later.

First, the Conference Board published data on consumer confidence that showed a much greater collapse than had been expected, especially in relation to the respondents' expectations for the future.

Second, the Case-Shiller house price index -- the leading measure of US home prices -- shows that the US National Home Price Index declined by 4.2 per cent in the first quarter of 2011, after having fallen 3.6 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2010. The National Index hit a new recession low with the first quarter's data and posted an annual decline of 5.1 per cent versus the first quarter of 2010. Nationally, home prices are back to their mid-2002 levels. As of March 2011, 19 of the 20 MSAs covered the index were down compared to March 2010.

Third, ahead of the official release of employment data on Friday, an ADP Employment Services report suggests that private-sector payroll growth slowed sharply in May, falling to the lowest level in eight months. This prompted some economists to lower their forecasts for job growth in Friday's data release. It looks as if the US is slowing.

In Europe, the final Markit eurozone manufacturing PMI fell sharply to a seven-month low of 54.6 in May, down from 58.0 in April and below the flash estimate of 54.8. The fall in the index was the largest since November 2008, as manufacturers reported slower rates of increase in output, new orders, employment and inventory accumulation. China is also slowing. Economic output in Australia shrank by 1.2 per cent in the three months to March -- the worst quarterly slide since 1991 -- the national accounts of the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed yesterday.

The data releases for the UK today were truly awful. They follow from the public finance data that shows that, far from paying off the debt, Osborne is increasing it. Plus such growth as there wasn't -­ GDP grew by zero over the past six months -- was driven by government spending. Then, today, the PMI for manufacturing in May was worse than the market expected.

According to Capital Economics, on past form, that leaves the balance consistent with quarterly falls in manufacturing output of around 1 per cent. Some of this fall, it argues, is likely to have been driven by the temporary disruption to supply chains caused by the Japanese earthquake. But Capital Economics points out that the new orders balance also fell from 50.8 to 48.3, which, it argues, suggests that "beneath the monthly volatility, a sharp underlying slowdown in demand is taking place".

There were also a number of statistical releases from the Bank of England, which added to the bleak picture. It appears that banks are simply not lending enough to get the economy moving. This suggests the poorly named Merlin project -- which should be renamed the Mickey Mouse project -- has not worked any magic. First, the money-supply growth was weak. Second, the stock of lending to UK businesses overall contracted in the three months to February, as did the stock of lending to small and medium-sized enterprises. Third, the number of loans approved for house purchases fell by 4 per cent to a four-month low of 45,166 in April ­- the lowest figure for April since records began in 1992.

This inept Chancellor has talked the economy down by falsely claiming it was bankrupt when it wasn't, which has decimated animal spirits among both businesses and consumers. He has also tried to blame a once-in-a-hundred-year global financial crisis on the previous government, which was clearly also untrue and hyperbolic. Osborne has implemented toothless regulation over the banks and has demonstrably failed to get them to lend. He also has no interest in controlling bankers' bonuses, despite his absurd claims to the contrary when he was shadow chancellor. And all of this before the public spending cuts hit: currently it is the public sector that is the driver for growth but that is all about to change. The public finances are worsening, not improving.

The government's economic policy is in total disarray and the economy is sinking. Osborne has been hoisted by his own petard; his numerous false claims were inevitably going to catch up with him and now they have. The coalition's austerity programme was never based on sound economics and was simply a political move to shrink the state. Interestingly, the claims that the economics profession supported his actions have turned out to be false. In my NS column in the issue out tomorrow, I make clear that one of the initial signatories to the letter to the Times that Osborne touted as supporting him ­- the 2010 Nobel Prize winner in economics, Chris Pissarides -­ has now, embarrassingly for Osborne, turned against him and now opposes the ill-conceived and wreckless austerity programme of cuts and tax increases.

It is hard to find any economists outside the City of London that do support the government's strategy, other than a few of the usual right-wing hangers-on.

It is time for Osborne to explain to the British people why his economic policies have failed and what he intends to do about it. My fear is that Slasher has inflicted so much damage on the British economy that it is too late to prevent us slipping back into recession.

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

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide