A Chancellor hoping something will turn up

Ignore the fuss about whether or not the economy is technically in recession. Economic stagnation lo

No sooner had the Office for National Statistics (ONS) announced last Wednesday that the UK economy had fallen back into recession than economists starting lining up to denounce the figures as wrong. Having predicted that the economy would have expanded at a modest rate in the first quarter of 2012, they refused to believe the ONS has got it right when it said that real GDP contracted by 0.2 per cent, after a fall of 0.3 per cent in the final quarter of 2011.

However, this debate over whether the economy grew or shrank by 0.1 or 0.2 per cent in the most recent quarter should not distract from the bigger picture. When the coalition government was formed, the economy had grown by 2.5 per cent over the preceding year - not a strong recovery from recession, but at least a recognisable one. In the subsequent seven quarters, real GDP has increased by just 0.4 per cent according to the official data. Even if the ONS has got the latest quarter wrong and the true figure is a little higher, this is a pretty dismal performance.

In part, this is down to bad luck - in particular the effect of higher food and energy prices on spending power and the Eurozone crisis – but government policies and rhetoric are also to blame.

The hike in VAT from 17.5 to 20 per cent added to the squeeze on households’ spending power and massive cuts in government capital spending have hit activity in the construction sector.

There is a sharp contrast with the United States, where there has been less urgency about tightening fiscal policy and which also released a preliminary estimate of first quarter GDP this week. There output increased by 0.75 per cent in the final quarter of 2011 and 0.55 per cent in the first quarter of this year. So while the UK economy contracted by 0.5 per cent over the last two quarters, the US economy expanded by 1.3 per cent.

The government’s rhetoric about the need for austerity in the public sector has also not helped. When they took office, Cameron and Osborne believed in the idea of an ‘expansionary fiscal contraction’: that cutting the budget deficit sharply would so boost confidence in the private sector that companies would step up their investment and recruitment programmes and the economy would grow faster than if the deficit had not been cut. It followed that the tougher they were on the deficit, the greater would be the boost to confidence and the stronger would be economic growth.

After almost two years, the idea of expansionary fiscal contraction has been shown to be patently false. As many economists warned at the time, the most likely result from public sector austerity is economic stagnation. The more the government increased taxes and cut public spending and the more it talked about austerity, the more companies worried about the outlook for demand. This made them understandably reluctant to invest and recruit. The government’s cuts mean there were 350,000 fewer jobs in the public sector in December 2011 compared to June 2010, but the private sector only created 320,000 jobs over the same period.

Despite this evidence, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor are sticking to the line that any deviation from their plan to cut the deficit would make matters worse. 90 per cent of the cuts in public spending are still to be implemented, meaning many more jobs will be lost in the public sector, and there is little to suggest the private sector is willing to step up recruitment to fill the gap.

George Osborne is simply left hoping that something turns up to change the situation. Or rather that something specific – inflation – turns down, so that real incomes start to increase again. Unfortunately, the latest figures, showing inflation of 3.5 per cent and an annual increase in regular earnings of just 1.6 per cent, are not encouraging.

Ignore the fuss about whether or not the economy is technically in recession, the economic stagnation that began in the middle of 2010 looks set to extend for some while yet.

Tony Dolphin is Chief Economist at the IPPR 

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Tony Dolphin is chief economist at IPPR

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MPs should follow Emmanuel Macron's example and stand up to the far right

Where does a liberal centrist's victory fit into your narrative of inevitable decline? 

“Après le #Brexit, le printemps des peuples est inévitable !” wrote the far-right Front National leader Marine Le Pen, days after Brexit. Well, the blossom is on the trees, and Le Pen is through to the second round of the French presidential elections, so presumably we’re bang in the middle of that inevitable “people’s spring”. 

After all, a referendum that left Britain’s metropolitan elite weeping into their EU flags was swiftly followed by the complete overturning of US political and ethical traditions. Donald Trump defied polling and won the Presidency, all the while proclaiming he was “Mr Brexit”.  

Then, in December, the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi held a referendum on constitutional changes and lost. Both Europhiles and Eurosceptics read the runes. Ukip’s on and off leader Nigel Farage crowed of 2016: “First we had the Brexit deliverance, then the Trump triumph, then the Italian rebellion. Democracy and the rebirth of the nation state!”

As this illustrates, the far-right want you to believe all these results are linked, and that they represent a popular, democratic movement. In the UK at least, the liberal left has drunk the English champagne. Labour is agonising over how to reconnect with “traditional” voters Ukip is apparently so in touch with – which don’t seem to include ethnic minorities, young people and those living in cities. Being “tough on immigration” is the answer to modern woes, and globalisation is a dirty word that can only represent multinational interests and not, say, cheaper food on the table. 

There are debates to be had about globalisation, of course, and the lingering impact of the 2008 financial crash, and the fact wages haven’t risen, and public services have been cut, and that in some northern towns, people from different ethnic backgrounds live segregated lives. But if the first round of the French presidential election can do us one favour, it’s to dispense with the narrative that there is something inevitable about the end of liberalism. 

Emmanuel Macron, an unapologetically pro-EU social, economic and political liberal, led the way in the first round of the French presidential election. The polls put him on course to become President.

If he wins, perhaps it’s time to revisit the narrative of decline. To remind ourselves that Hillary Clinton, now written off, won the popular vote in the United States, and among growing demographics of voters too. That a far-right  Austrian presidential candidate was defeated in 2016. That as recently as March, the Dutch mainstream prevailed against the far-right original Trump, Geert Wilders, and that the left-green leader Jesse Klaver enjoyed a surge instead. And that, although it’s now commonplace to assume Canada is just “nicer” in electing a liberal, Justin Trudeau, his party actually overturned nearly a decade of tar sands Conservative rule. 

Should liberals start to join these dots, voters should have the right to ask why both Labour and the Conservatives have jumped on the populists' bandwagon so eagerly. Why, among previously economically liberal Conservatives, are Nicky Morgan, Ken Clarke and Anna Soubry left as lone voices on the back benches. And why, in Labour, is patchy research linking depressed wages and immigration now exhalted as long-established fact? 

Liberalism may be out of fashion, but it’s not dead yet, as any of the Tory MPs in south-west marginal seats know too well. By the time Farage’s “independence day” on 24 June arrives, the narrative may have changed again. 

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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