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 

Source: Getty Images

Tony Dolphin is chief economist at IPPR

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.