A fall in confidence that could end in double dip

The Chancellor can no longer sit idly by.

I am beginning to sound like a broken record as the bad data news on the UK economy continues to pile up. Things on the economic front are really not good and, most worrying, are worsening fast before our very eyes.

The major release of the results of the European Commission Economic Sentiment Index, based on business and consumer surveys in August 2011, was a real shocker. The index is made up of five components based on business surveys in industry, services, manufacturing and retail, as well as a consumer survey. These are conducted in identical form in all 27 member countries and are available as a pdf file or can be downloaded as Excel files. Check them out -- they are scary!

In August, the ESI declined by 5.0 points to 97.3 in the EU and by 4.7 points to 98.3 in the euro area. This decline resulted from a broad-based deterioration in sentiment across the sectors, with losses in confidence being particularly marked in services, retail trade and among consumers. Only the construction sector in the euro area recorded an improvement.

Among the largest member states, Germany (-5.7 points) and the UK (-5.6) reported the strongest decreases in sentiment, followed by Poland (-3.6), the Netherlands (-3.0) and, to a lesser extent, Italy (-0.7), while the ESI remained broadly unchanged in Spain (-0.3). The ESI remains above its long-term average only in Germany and stands at 92.9 in the UK, having fallen from 104.6 in March.

Consumer confidence has continued its steady fall and is now at around the same level it was in May 2009 -- and it continues to drop.

Retail and services confidence

Of particular concern in the UK, though, was the dramatic collapse in confidence among businesses in services and retail. This is illustrated in the graph (above), which shows the sharp fall in both surveys over the past three or four months. This is of particular concern, given that the two surveys tracked very well the collapse of output at the onset of recession.

The two surveys started to fall sharply from March 2008 as the economy headed into recession, which was dated as starting in the second quarter of 2008, based on negative GDP growth.

We are able to explore further the reasons for the fall in both sectors as the European Commission provides more disaggregated detail. It is apparent that in both sectors, demand has fallen markedly and expectations for the future are increasingly pessimistic. Retailers are reporting rising inventory levels due to lack of sales.


Evidence of doom and gloom in the massive service sector was also reported on Tuesday in the CBI's survey of service-sector firms. Business volumes fell in the UK services sector in the past quarter, at the fastest rate since November 2009, the CBI found. Firms in business and professional services, which had been growing slowly, saw volumes contract unexpectedly.

Volumes of business in consumer services also fell -- and at the fastest rate since November 2009. Richard Woolhouse, the CBI's Head of Fiscal Policy, said:

Activity has fallen across the services sector for the first time since November 2009. This quarter we've seen more evidence of the ongoing decline in consumer services spending, as people with increasingly squeezed household incomes are forced to cut back their discretionary spending.

The concern is that this drop in business and consumer confidence is a prelude to a double-dip recession. I assume that the Chancellor George Osborne will continue to assert that his policies are working. Now that both businesses and consumers are running scared, however, Osborne can no longer sit idly by and assert that all is well. It is time for further fiscal stimulus.

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

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.