The time for sneering is over

Naive politics will always have to deal with economic truths. And the latest data leaves Osborne, an

I have to say, I am beginning to feel a bit sorry for our dear Chancellor, who has backed himself into a corner. He was so confident when he came into power that he was right. All that sneering about the Labour government having failed and that he was going to put us on the path to nirvana.

Unfortunately, naive politics of that kind was always going to have to deal with the economic data. Osborne's economic strategy was always doomed principally as it had zero plans for growth; indeed, we are still awaiting an announcement of a policy for growth but now it is too late. Denying the need for a plan B was always a dangerous strategy.

In a speech at Bloomberg on 17th August 2010, Osborne argued as follows:

I'm optimistic that if we:
- stick to the course we have set ourselves on;
- hold firm to our plans;
- deal with our debts;
- start to rebalance our economy;
- and provide the stability Britain has been so lacking in recent years;

then we can navigate our way through to calmer waters.

The alternative -- to change course, put off dealing with our problems, be in denial about the scale of the deficit -- is the surest way to disaster. It would wreck the British economy.

And, ludicrously, he went on to argue: "We are all in this together."

Unfortunately, as I have been predicting would happen from the formation of the coalition, sticking to Osborne's economic plans is wrecking the British economy. No stability, rising unemployment, no calm waters and no rebalancing; and, most importantly, the consumer is running scared with negative real wage growth, rising prices and rising fear for the future.

The data today on the consumer side is horrid once again and, added to that fear, is likely to be a major downward pull on growth. This is another nail in the coffin for the OBR's growth forecast. In March 2011, the OBR forecast that consumption would make a positive contribution to growth in 2011 and even more so in subsequent years. That doesn't look likely.

Retail sales volumes fell, on a year ago in August, at the fastest pace for over a year, the CBI said today. Retailers were the most negative they have been about the general business situation since February 2009. The CBI's latest quarterly distributive trades survey found that 31 per cent of retailers saw the volume of sales rise in the two weeks to 16 August, while 46 per cent said they fell. The resulting rounded balance of -14 per cent was in line with expectations (-12 per cent) and the most negative since May 2010 (-18 per cent). A balance of -11 per cent of retailers said they felt more negative about the business situation over the next three months than they did three months ago; the most negative for 18 months. Retailers are scaling back investment plans over the next 12 months, with the balance of -11 per cent the most negative since February 2009 (-26 per cent). Not good.

The Nationwide Consumer Confidence Index for July fell by two points to 49 points and now stands at a near identical level to January 2011. Over half of consumers believe that it is currently a bad time to make a major purchase. Especially worrying was how the proportion of people who believe the economic situation will be better than today in six months time decreased by 3 percentage points. Robert Gardner, Nationwide's chief economist, said:

At 49 points, the main confidence index remains well below its long-run average reading of 79. With the economic recovery still facing strong headwinds it is unlikely that we will see any considerable improvement in confidence in the remainder of 2011. Indeed, it may be that we see a further deterioration in August, following riots in a number of UK cities and the sharp declines seen in stock markets around the world. Overall, conditions for the UK economy remain challenging, especially for consumers.

Bad.

Plus, Martin Weale, one of the inflation hawks on the MPC, in a speech today in Doncaster explained that he changed his vote this month from an increase of 25 basis points -- that he had voted for in the previous seven meetings -- to one of no change. It was because of:

. . . the weaker economic outlook . . . the need for insurance is less than it was; by the time we produced our August forecast, the market path for interest rates consistent with keeping inflation close to its target was much less steeply sloped. Averaged over the next two to three years, the interest rate did not need to be as high. As a result, I did not see the case for an immediate increase in bank rate at our last meeting in August.

The economy is weakening and the chances are that the MPC will have to do more quantitative easing -- and soon.

We are not all in this together and Osborne's policies are wrecking the rapidly slowing UK economy. The time for sneering is over.

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

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What does it mean for Ukip if it loses in Stoke-on-Trent Central?

The party’s prospects are in question if it fails to win over the “Brexit capital” in Thursday's by-election.

“The Only Way Is Up!” blasted through a hall in Stoke-on-Trent Central on a damp Monday evening earlier this month. It was the end of a public Ukip meeting, in which Nigel Farage and his successor and by-election candidate Paul Nuttall made their rallying cries to an audience of around 650 supporters.

But even then, a fortnight ago, the note of triumph in the dance classic was tinged with uncertainty. “We’ve won the war, but we’ve yet to win the peace,” Farage admitted to the sympathetic crowd. And while this message is supposed to make Ukip’s fight relevant even in the context of Brexit-bound Britain, it betrays the party’s problem: the battle that was its raison d'être is over.

Failing fortunes

Since then, the party has had more to contend with. Its candidate in the Labour seat has been caught lying about having “close personal friends” killed at the Hillsborough disaster. This comes on top of a number of other false claims, and an investigation into whether he falsely registered his home address as being in the constituency.

After these scandals – and a campaign seemingly unable to turn out apathetic voters (which I covered a couple of weeks ago) – Ukip’s chances in the West Midlands seat look worse than expected.

Initially the main challenger to Labour, Ukip is now being predicted for third or even fourth place in the seat, behind a Tory party that essentially stood aside to give Nuttall room, and to focus on a concurrent by-election campaign in Copeland.

It’s in Labour’s interest for the campaign to continue looking like a close Labour-Ukip fight, in order to keep hold of tactical voters. But both the Conservative and Lib Dem campaigns are feeling more buoyant.

“We are relatively confident that Ukip are not going to win, and that is quite a change,” the Lib Dem campaign coordinator Ed Fordham told me. “That has actually relieved lots of voters of the emotional risk of letting in what they perceive to be an unpleasant, far-right option . . . and voting for who they would like to represent them.”

One local activist chirped: “It will hopefully be a terrible result for Ukip.”

So what will it mean for Ukip if it loses?

Great expectations

Ukip has a lot riding on this seat. Farage called the by-election “absolutely fundamental” to Ukip’s future. Its new leader, Nuttall, took the risk of running as the party’s candidate there – riding his reputation on the by-election.

This created a lot of hype about Ukip’s chances, which the party has privately been trying to play down ever since. Even before the scandal surrounding Nuttall, he was emphasising that the seat had only been Ukip’s 72nd target, and told me he had taken a gamble by running for it. “The way it’s being written up as if this is the one – it wasn’t,” he insisted.

But Stoke-on-Trent, where 69 per cent voted Leave, has been labelled the “Brexit capital”. According to political scientist Rob Ford, the author of Revolt on the Right who has been studying Labour’s most Ukip-vulnerable seats: “It should be a pretty favourable seat for them, pretty favourable demographics, pretty favourable [negative] attitudes about the EU, very high Brexit vote there and so on.”

In other words, if Ukip can’t win here, against a weak Labour party, where can it win?

Struggle for seats

Brexit is central to Ukip’s by-election campaign. The party has highlighted Labour’s splits over Europe, pointed out the Labour candidate Gareth Snell’s Remainer credentials, and warned that the government needs to be held to account when negotiating Britain’s exit.

But Ford believes this rhetoric is unlikely to work, since the Tories are already pursuing a “hard” Brexit focused on immigration control. “A difficulty for Paul Nuttall and Ukip is that people are going to say: why would we vote for you when we’re getting what we want from the government? What’s the point right now?” he said. “I can have all the Brexity stuff, all the immigration control stuff, but with none of the incompetence and serial lying about Hillsborough – I think I’ll take that!”

So if rerunning the EU referendum doesn’t work, even in such a Brexit-heavy seat, this means trouble for Ukip elsewhere in the country. A Ukip councillor in a top Ukip target seat with similar demographics to Stoke believes it’s “crisis time” for the party.

“It is very sad to say, but Ukip has lost its way,” they told me. “It’s still a strong party, but after losing Nigel, it’s lost a little of its oomph. The new gentleman [Nuttall] has been silly with the comments he’s made. That’s a big worry in some regards. You need to be a people person. It’s a serious situation at the minute.”

If Ukip can’t prove it can win parliamentary seats – even in favourable by-elections – then it will be difficult to prove its authority as a political party come the general election.

Leadership lament

Should Nuttall lose, Ukip’s leadership will come into question. Again. During a tumultuous time late last year, when the favourite Steven Woolfe left the party after a physical altercation, and Diane James quit the leadership after 18 days, commentators asked if Ukip was anything without Farage.

When Nuttall eventually took over, the same voices warned of his threat to Labour – citing his northern and working-class roots. It’s likely this narrative will change, and Farage’s golden touch pondered again, if Nuttall fails to win.

But rather than panic about its national leader, Ukip must look carefully at those who commit to the party in local campaigns. On the ground in Stoke, running Nuttall as a candidate instead of a local Ukipper is seen as a mistake.

“I don’t know why they did that,” one local activist for an opposing party commented. “If they’d run Mick Harold, they would’ve won. He’s a Stokie.”

Harold, the deputy chair of Staffordshire County Committee, and chair of Ukip’s Stoke-on-Trent Central/North branch, won 22.7 per cent of the vote for Ukip in the constituency in 2015. He insists that he stands by his decision to step aside for Nuttall, but does highlight that Ukip should increase its vote share.

“If we’re increasing our percentage share of the vote, we’re still moving forward and that’s how we’ve got to look at it,” he told me. “I got 22.7 per cent in 2015. I would think this time we’re going to certainly get somewhere around the 30 per cent mark.”

Would it have been more likely to achieve this with Harold as candidate? “Whatever happens, happens, we’ve just got to move forward,” he replied. “If you’ve made a mistake, you move on from it.”

I have heard similar misgivings from local activists in other parts of the country – people who have achieved impressive results in local elections and the general election, but haven’t had much thanks from the national party. “We need to get professionalised now,” one such campaigner said. “Because we’ve got grassroots people who are not career politicians [doing all the hard work].” They say their local party is fed up with leadership being dictated by “personal grudges” at the top of the party.

***

As I’ve written before, I don’t think this is the end of Ukip. Once Brexit starts to bite, and it’s clear immigrants are still needed to fill jobs, there will be resentment enough to make space for them again. But losing Stoke will highlight the challenges – of purpose, leadership and local organisation – that the party will need to overcome for its next stand.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.