The government action needed to get the economy growing again

Real GDP has now fallen for three consecutive quarters.

The Office for National Statistics has confirmed that the UK economy remained in recession during the second quarter of 2012 after output fell by a much bigger than expected 0.7 per cent. Real GDP has now fallen for three consecutive quarters and in five of the last seven quarters. Output is still 4.5 per cent lower than at its peak at the beginning of 2008.

There were some special factors in the second quarter that will have affected output: the extra Jubilee bank holiday and the atrocious weather. But it is unlikely that they fully explain the fall. The underlying economy is performing far worse than the Coalition and most economic forecasters expected.

Clearly, this is no ordinary economic downturn. There are two facets to the UK’s economic crisis: a short-term lack of demand and a long-term risk that the supply potential of the economy will be damaged. Any set of policies designed to promote growth in the UK must recognise this fact and tackle both. Failure to do so is likely to result in a failure to achieve the desired outcome: a speedy return to economic growth and a rapid decline in the number of people who are unemployed in the UK.

Improving the supply potential of the economy will be futile if it means demand falls ever further short of supply. Boosting demand in the short-term without supporting the supply potential of the economy in the long-term would risk recreating the problems that led to the financial crisis and recession. What is required is a judicious mix of ‘Keynesian’ and ‘structural’ policies designed to reduce uncertainty in the private sector, particularly among businesses.

A recently-published IPPR paper set out details of the policies that should now be pursued. In summary, they are:

  • Fiscal measures, including a two-year, 2p cut in the rate of employees National Insurance contributions, to boost growth in the short-term, while ensuring a credible plan remains in place to eliminate the deficit.
  • Additional infrastructure spending amounting to £30 billion over the next two years, including on transport, energy supply and social housing, to both lift demand in the short-term and to support long-term growth by encouraging private sector investment.
  • A further increase in the scale of quantitative easing, possibly involving the purchase of assets other than government bonds.
  • Measures to make household debt restructuring easier, combined with discussions about how to prevent large-scale mortgage repayment problems when interest rates eventually go up.
  • A job guarantee scheme for every person who has been out of work for 12 months or more in order to prevent people losing touch with the labour market.
  • An active industrial strategy focused on industries in which the UK has a comparative advantage and on areas where demand will grow rapidly in the future, such as the ageing population, emerging economies and the low-carbon transition.

This will involve an increase in planned government borrowing the short-term, but this can be done without jeopardising fiscal credibility. The IMF, in its latest report on the UK economy published just last week said: "The UK has the fiscal space to make such adjustments."

The coalition hoped that its deficit reduction strategy would boost the economy by creating greater confidence about the future, so leading to a surge in private sector business activity. After two years during which the economy has now shrunk by 0.3 per cent, this strategy has clearly failed. Indeed, the IMF estimate that fiscal consolidation over this period subtracted roughly 2.5 per cent from growth. Furthermore, the latest figures show underlying government borrowing in the first half of 2012 was higher than in the comparable period of 2011. A strategy based on deficit reduction is not even achieving its primary aim of reducing the deficit!

It is time to map out a new roadmap back to growth; one that combines elements of Keynesian and supply-side policies. A combination of both is needed to get the economy growing again in the next few years and to ensure growth is sustained well into the medium-term.

Tony Dolphin is Chief Economist at IPPR


Terrible construction figures show that the coalition's plan has failed. Photograph: Getty Images

Tony Dolphin is chief economist at IPPR

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Does the UK care enough about climate change to admit it is part of the problem?

The government’s energy policies make can make it hard to decipher its commitment to emissions reduction.

“People tell me it’s ridiculous to be flying for a climate change project but you have to get real with it, I mean I can’t cycle across the Southern ocean,” says Daniel Price, an environmental scientist from London. As founder of Pole-to-Paris, Price is about to complete a 17,000km bike ride from the Antarctic to the Arc de Triomphe.

Price came up with the idea in an effort to raise public awareness of COP21, the UN Climate Change Conference taking place in Paris next week. During the trip he’s faced a succession of set-backs: from the discovery that boats were prohibitively expensive, to diplomatic tensions scuppering his Russian visa plans. Yet the darkest moments were when he became overwhelmed by the magnitude of his own mission. “There were difficult times when I just thought, ‘What is the point of this’?” he says. “Cycling round the world is nowhere near enough to engage people.” 

As world leaders descend on Paris, many questions remain unanswered. Not least how much support developing nations will receive in tackling the effects of climate change. New research commissioned by Oxfam claims that such costs could rise to £1.7tn a year by 2050. But with cuts kicking in at home, the need to deliver “climate justice” abroad feels like a bigger ask than ever.

So does Britain really care enough about climate change to accept its full part in this burden? The government’s energy policies make can make it hard to decipher its commitment to emissions reduction. In September, however, it did pledge £5.8bn from the foreign aid fund to helping poorer nations combat climate change (twice that promised by China and the United States). And there’s evidence to suggest that we, as a public, may also care more than we think.

In America attitudes are much darker; in the dismissive words of Donald Trump “It’s called the weather”. Not least since, as a recent study proves, over the last twenty years corporations have systematically spread scepticism about the science. “The contrarian efforts have been so effective," says the author Justin Farrell, a Yale sociologist, "that they have made it difficult for ordinary Americans to even know who to trust.” 

And what about in China, the earth's biggest polluter? Single-party rule and the resulting lack of public discussion would seem to be favouring action on the environment. The government has recently promised to reach "peak" emissions by 2030, to quadruple solar installations, and to commit $3.1bn to help low-income countries adapt to the changing world. Christiana Figueres, the UN’s chief climate official, has even lauded the country for taking “undisputed leadership” on climate change mitigation.

Yet this surge of policy could mask the most troubling reality of all: that, when it comes to climate change, the Chinese are the least concerned citizenship in the world. Only 18 per cent of Chinese see the issue as a very serious problem, down 23 percentage points from five years ago, and 36 points behind the global median.

A new study by political economist Dr Alex Lo has concluded that the country’s reduced political debate could be to blame for the lack of concern. “In China popular environmentalism is biased towards immediate environmental threats”, such as desertification and pollution, Lo writes, “giving little impetus to a morally driven climate change movement”.

For the international community, all is well and good as long as the Chinese government continues along its current trajectory. But without an engaged public to hold it to account there’s always a chance its promises may fade into thin air.

So perhaps the UK’s tendency to moan about how hard it is to care about the (seemingly) remote impacts of climate change isn’t all bad. At least we know it is something worth moaning about. And perhaps we care more than we let on to each other.

Statistics published this summer by the Department of Energy and Climate Change reveal that three quarters of the British public support subsidies for renewable energy, despite only 10 per cent thinking that the figure is that high. “Even if the public think the consensus is not there, there are encouraging signs that it is,” says Liz Callegari, Head of Campaigns at WWF. “Concern for climate change is growing.”

As Price puts it, “You can think of climate change as this kind of marathon effort that we have to address and in Paris we just have to get people walking across the start line together”. Maybe then we will all be ready to run.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.