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.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.