Double-dip recession: don't say we didn't warn you

The New Statesman warned in 2009 that Osborne had no plan for growth.

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Even by the standards of recent economic data, today's OECD report makes for particularly grim reading. The body's soothsayers predict that the UK will suffer a double-dip recession, with growth contracting in the fourth quarter of this year and in the first quarter of 2012. In total, the British economy will grow by just 0.5 per cent next year. To put that figure into context, recall that as recently as May the OECD expected growth of 1.8 per cent, while in March the Office for Budget Responsibility predicted growth of 2.5 per cent. The outlook for jobs is little better. Unemployment is forecast to rise from 8.3 per cent at present to 9.1 per cent in 2013 as the private sector fails to compensate for public sector job losses.

These are, of course, just forecasts but recent history suggests that the most pessimistic growth forecasts are invariably the most accurate. In any case, George Osborne's 2010 promise of "a steady and sustained economic recovery, with low inflation and falling unemployment" is already a distant dream.

While many are wise after the event, the New Statesman was warning of the danger of a double-dip as long ago as March 2009 (see cover above). Our economics editor David Blanchflower predicted that premature withdrawal of fiscal stimulus would strangle growth and raise unemployment, particularly among the young.

He wrote in October 2009:

Lesson number one in a deep recession is you don't cut public spending until you are into the boom phase. John Maynard Keynes taught us that. The euro area appears to be heading back into recession and the austerity measures being introduced in certain eurozone countries, especially those in Germany, will inevitably lower UK growth, too. It is extremely unlikely, therefore, that net trade will leap to our rescue. taught us that. The consequence of cutting too soon is that you drive the economy into a depression, with the attendant threats of rapidly rising unemployment, social disorder, rising poverty, falling living standards and even soup kitchens.

In the wake of Osborne's emergency Budget, he warned:

The euro area appears to be heading back into recession and the austerity measures being introduced in certain eurozone countries, especially those in Germany, will inevitably lower UK growth, too. It is extremely unlikely, therefore, that net trade will leap to our rescue.

At a time when Osborne was being hailed by much of the British press as the country's economic saviour, we warned that he had no plan for growth. In October 2009, an NS leader argued:

Mr Osborne is a skilful politician, with a flair for rhetoric and the easy headline - the latest example being his opportunistic statements on curtailing bankers' bonuses, something that could be achieved only through concerted international co-operation. The only economic plan he seems to have is for attempting to balance the books. He does not have a plan for growth. He has a plan for a lack of growth.

In August 2010, we warned that "in spite of Mr Osborne's doctrinaire "emergency" Budget, all the economic data suggests that the UK is facing a deadly combination of rising unemployment, falling house prices, diminished consumer confidence and low - if not negative - growth for the rest of the year and beyond."

But not everyone was so doubtful about Osborne's ability to stimulate growth. Here are some influential figures and institutions who may now regret their early optimism (including the OECD itself).

My personal favourite is Nick Bosanquet, professor of health policy at Imperial College London and consultant director for Reform, who predicted in January that the UK economy would be "the surprise success of Europe in 2011". Since then, Britain has grown at a slower rate than every EU country expect Cyprus, Greece and Portugal.

And ... some who got it wrong

"The UK economy is on the mend. Economic recovery is underway, unemployment has stabilized, and financial sector health has improved. The government's strong and credible multi-year fiscal deficit reduction plan is essential to ensure debt sustainability."

IMF, 27 September 2010

"The Chancellor has achieved his twin objectives of setting out a credible plan for the public finances and producing a convincing growth strategy for the longer-term ... This Budget is the UK's first important step on the long journey back to economic health."

Richard Lambert, CBI Director-General, 25 June 2010

"George Osborne has faced up to the challenge. The economy needed faster and deeper deficit reduction and that's exactly what the Chancellor has delivered ... We do not believe the Budget will threaten economic recovery. Quite the contrary, it is likely to improve the economic outlook by showing the public finances are finally being brought under control."

Miles Templeman, Director General of the Institute of Directors, 22 June 2010

"The Budget announced today by the U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer is a courageous move ... It provides the necessary degree of fiscal consolidation over the coming years to restore public finances to a sustainable path, while still supporting the recovery."

Angel Gurría, secretary general of the OECD, 22 June 2010

"We are relatively sanguine about the UK's ability to grow through the fiscal tightening. In an open economy, robust global growth - and that's what it's looking like at the moment - does quite a bit of the work."

Ben Broadbent, Goldman Sachs, 3 January 2011

"Now for one prediction: consumer spending will be squeezed by the regrettable (and avoidable) hike in Vat and from the (necessary) cuts in spending. But reduced debt-financed spending will go hand in hand with growth in private investment and exports, partly thanks to strong global demand, thus cushioning most of the impact. The years ahead will be very tough - but there will be no double dip recession made in Downing Street."

Allister Heath, City AM editor, 24 June 2010

"The UK economy will be the surprise success of Europe in 2011 ... The enterprise culture of SMEs, exports and the strong corporate sector will all help recovery, which will be in the Midlands as well as in the south-east."

Nick Bosanquet, Imperial College London and Reform, 3 January 2011

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why Podemos will defeat the Spanish Socialists

A new alliance on the Spanish Left will be stronger than the sum of its parts.

On Saturday morning, on a palm-tree lined promenade in the small city of Badalona in eastern Catalonia, a 38-year-old woman named Mar García Puig fanned herself with her speaking notes after taking her turn on the stage.

Until six months ago, Puig was a literary editor with no professional experience in politics apart from attending demonstrations and rallies. Then, in December, her life was transformed twice over. In the national election, she won a parliamentary seat for En Comú Podem, the Catalan regional ally of the anti-austerity party Podemos. Four hours after she learned of her victory, Puig gave birth to twins.

Fortunately Puig’s husband, who is a teacher, was able to take paternity leave so that she could take up her seat. In parliament, Puig “felt like an alien”, she told me over coffee. As it turned out, she had to give up her seat prematurely anyway – along with all the other Spanish MPs – when repeated attempts to form a government failed. So now, in the lead-up to Spain’s first repeat election of the modern era, to be held on 26 June, Puig was on the campaign trail once more in a drive to win a parliamentary seat.

The December general election was as historic as it was inconclusive, ushering in a novel political era in Spain and leaving the country with the most fragmented parliament in its history. Fed up with corruption, austerity and a weak recovery from the global financial crisis, voters punished the mainstream parties, ending the 40-year dominance of the conservative Partido Popular (People’s Party) and the centre-left PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), which have held power since the death of General Franco. Neither group was able to win an absolute majority as new parties from both ends of the political spectrum garnered support from disenchanted voters.

On the left, Podemos, which was only founded in March 2014 by the ponytailed political scientist Pablo Iglesias, won 20 per cent of the vote. Ciudadanos (Citizens), formed in Catalonia a decade ago and occupying the centre left or centre right, depending on which analyst you talk to, secured a 14 per cent share.

Despite having four months to form a coalition government, the two biggest political parties could not reach a deal. The People’s Party, which had implemented a harsh austerity package over the past five years, recorded its worst electoral performance since 1989, losing 16 percentage points. It still won the most votes, however, and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was the first leader to be asked by King Felipe VI to form a government.

By the end of January, Rajoy conceded defeat after the PSOE refused to join his “grand coalition”. The Socialists then failed in their own attempt to form a government, leading the king to dissolve parliament and call a fresh election.

Despite the inconvenience of having to campaign nationwide once again – and being away from her twins – Mar García Puig’s enthusiasm for her new career is undiminished. “In Spain there is a window of opportunity,” she said. “There is a receptiveness to politics that there wasn’t before.”

When the repeat elections were called, some questioned whether Podemos and its regional allies could mobilise its supporters to the same extent as in December. Yet Puig believes that the party’s appeal has grown further in the six months that the country has been without a government. “We are still new and Podemos has this freshness – it can still make people join,” she told me.

The following day, as the church bells rang at noon in the Basque city of Bilbao, crowds gathered for another rally. For protection against the sun, Podemos supporters had covered their heads with purple triangular paper hats displaying the party name as it will appear on the ballot paper: Unidos Podemos, or “United We Can”.

In May, Podemos entered into an alliance with Izquierda Unida (United Left), the radical left-wing party that includes the Communist Party of Spain, and which won 3 per cent of the vote in December. Izquierda Unida is headed by Alberto Garzón, a 30-year-old Marxist economist who, according to a poll by the state-run CIS research institute, is the most highly rated party leader in Spain. Unlike Podemos’s Iglesias, who can fire up a crowd and is seen by some as divisive, Garzón is a calm and articulate politician who appeals to disaffected voters.

Nagua Alba, who at 26 is Podemos’s youngest MP, said the new alliance would be stronger than the sum of its parts, because Spain’s voting system punishes smaller parties when it comes to allocating seats in parliament. “It [the alliance] will attract all those people that aren’t convinced yet. It shows we can all work together,” Alba said.

As part of the agreement with Podemos, Izquierda Unida has agreed to drop its demands for a programme of renationalisation and withdrawing Spain from Nato. The alliance is campaigning on a platform of reversing Rajoy’s labour reforms, removing the national debt ceiling, opposing the TTIP trade deal, and increasing the minimum wage to €900 a month. A Unidos Podemos government would attempt to move the EU’s economic policy away from austerity and towards a more expansionist stance, joining a broader effort that involves Greece, Italy and Portugal. It is also committed to offering the Catalans a referendum on independence, a move that the mainstream parties strongly oppose.

The latest polls suggest that Unidos Podemos will become Spain’s second-biggest party, with 26 per cent of the vote, behind Rajoy’s Popular Party. The Socialist Party looks poised to fall into third place, with 21 per cent, and Ciudadanos is expected to hold its 14 per cent share. If the polls are accurate, the PSOE will face a difficult choice that highlights how far its stock has fallen. It can choose to enter as a junior partner into a coalition with the insurgent left, which has politically outmanoeuvred it. Or it could decide to prop up a Partido Popular-led right-wing coalition, serving as a constraint on power. 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain