Inaction is now the biggest economic risk

The long-term cost of high unemployment to individuals and to society is huge.

The long-term cost of high unemployment to individuals and to society is huge.

Not surprisingly, NIESR's latest forecast, published today, has led to predictable headlines focusing on our prediction of a "return to technical recession." But this misses the point. We are forecasting that the economy will contract slightly in the first half of this year; some other forecasters agree, others don't. But the differences are within the margin of error; we could well be wrong. The point is that almost everyone expects, even assuming an eventual successful resolution of the eurozone crisis, that growth will be slow at best.

So what should be done? The UK economy currently suffers from deficient demand; the current stance of fiscal policy is contributing to this deficiency. A temporary easing of fiscal policy in the near term would boost the economy. The credible commitment to a sustainable fiscal policy over the longer term provides the government with the flexibility to provide a clearly defined and temporary boost to near-term demand. For example, an increase in government investment would not have a significant impact either on long-run sustainability or - given the way they are defined - the likelihood of the government meeting its fiscal targets.

It is important to be clear that this is not about averting a recession in the short-term. It doesn't matter very much, either to the economy as whole or to individuals, whether economic growth is 0.2 per cent or -0.1 per cent. This is about minimising the long term social and economic damage. On current forecasts - both ours, and that of the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) we are set for an extended period where growth will not be enough to reduce unemployment to the levels we saw before the recession. We expect unemployment to rise to about 9 percent - 3 million - this year and to remain high. Even in 2014, it will still be over 7 per cent. This compares to the OBR's estimate that the structural unemployment rate is about 5.25 per cent.

That difference - the "unemployment gap", shown in the chart below, is a measure of the how much extra (or less) unemployment there is as a result of macroeconomic conditions - i.e. cyclical unemployment resulting from labour demand, or lack of it (more explanation here). In other words, if macroeconomic policy is broadly on track, the unemployment gap should be small; it is a measure of the number of people who are not working because macroeconomic policy isn't either.

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The chart shows that the unemployment gap in the aftermath of the 2008 recession will be larger and longer than any recession since 1970 (which certainly means any recession since the war) including the early 1980s, although there is probably some uncertainty about the 1980s estimates. It says that - on the official view and the official forecast - the unemployment gap is a million now, rising, and will be higher in 2013 than now; and that even by 2015, fully seven years after the recession began, it will be over 2 percent of the labour force, about 650,000 people. Unemployment at this elevated level for such a long period is likely to do permanent damage to the supply side of the economy, with large long-run economic costs.

The argument about fiscal policy is often presented as "Yes, fiscal stimulus might do some good, but are you willing to take the risk?" In my view the risks are hugely exaggerated, as I wrote in this magazine. But people talk much less about the downside of inaction. If we do not do something to boost labour demand now, we are not just taking a risk, we are accepting the likelihood of continuing high levels of unemployment that will damage both many individuals and society as a whole. In 1925 Winston Churchill expressed his dismay that policymakers seemed to be "perfectly happy with at the spectacle of Britain possessing the finest credit in the world simultaneously with a million and a quarter unemployed." As Martin Wolf puts it, "How masochistic does one need to be?".

Jonathan Portes is Director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. His blog is http://notthetreasuryview.blogspot.com

Jonathan Portes is director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research and former chief economist at the Cabinet Office.

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.