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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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.