Lost year, or lost decade?

Growth will flatline over the next year, but already things are back where they were in 2002.

I wrote yesterday that it doesn't really matter that the UK is in a technical recession. The zero boundary is unimportant in many aspects of economics, and growth is one – the difference between -0.1 per cent and 0.1 per cent is the same as the difference between 0.1 per cent and 0.3 per cent.

But when economics feeds into politics and the media, the difference does matter. Headlines of "UK not in recession" are far more likely in the event of 0.1 per cent growth than headlines of "UK remains in crippling stagnation"; similarly, the news yesterday was always going to be about the two consectutive quarters of negative growth, not the seven consecutive quarters in which the UK economy has barely changed. Headlines affect how people think, how people think affects how they act, and how they act feeds back into the economy.

All of which is to say that if it didn't matter that we were in a technical recession when the stats were released at 9:30am yesterday, it probably did by the time the front pages were fixed at 9:30pm.

Gerard Lyons, Standard Chartered's chief economist, said:

The likelihood is that the data will further dent confidence and push the recovery back.

The second quarter of 2012 was always going to be a weak one. The OBR, which overestimated Q4 2011 growth by 0.1 per cent and Q1 2012 by 0.5 per cent, predicts a flatlining Q2 2012, with 0.0 per cent growth. If their past pattern continues, we should expect a third quarter of contraction - especially as consumer confidence, hit by the news of recession, will depress that quarter still furter.

Little wonder that Philip Aldrick, the Telegraph's economics editor, is calling this a "lost year", fearing that the overall contraction in 2012 could be 0.1 per cent. But even there, talk of a lost year glosses over the longer term weaknesses. Nominally positive growth below the rate of population growth results in GDP per capita contracting. Even if we find out, after the final GDP figures come out in two months, that we weren't in a national recession, we've been in a per capita recession for a while. And under OBR and ONS predictions for the rate of GDP and population growth, it won't be until 2016 that GDP per capita is back to where it was in 2007. That isn't a lost year; it's a lost decade.

And even talk of a lost decade is understating the problem. Pay rises have been near at or below inflation for so long that the average weekly wage now is worth the same as it was in September of 2002 – and because price inflation remains higher than wage inflation, this is getting worse, not better. In terms of what you can buy for your wage, we've already lost a decade. The trick will be to not lose two.

Buckingham Palace during the Golden Jubiliee, the last time real wages were this low.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.