In the slow lane

New economic forecasts from the OECD show how bad austerity has been for growth.

The OECD's latest interim assessment of the outlook for the G7 economies, published on 29 March, suggests the UK economy is back in recession (usually defined by economists as two consecutive quarters of falling real GDP). A day earlier the Office for National Statistics published revised national accounts data showing real GDP contracted by 0.3 per cent in the final quarter of 2011. In its report, the OECD says it thinks this will be followed by a 0.1 per cent contraction in the first quarter of 2012.

The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) takes a more optimistic view in its latest forecast, published alongside the budget. It thinks the economy will grow by 0.3 per cent in the first quarter.

Differences in opinion between groups of economists over the outlook for the economy are not unknown, but it is a little surprising that two essentially consensual bodies like the OECD and the OBR have come up with such different forecasts for the current quarter, particularly when we are already at the end of March.

Typically, when trying to forecast very recent developments in the economy, economists look at surveys of business confidence. These have been shown to be the most reliable indicators of short-term fluctuations in activity (measures of consumer confidence are much less useful) and they support the OBR's forecast over the OECD's. Indeed, the OBR cite an improvement in survey evidence to justify their optimism that the economy will expanded in the first quarter.

Unfortunately, the OECD is less forthcoming about the reasons for its pessimism. It does, though, also forecast a recession in the three largest euro zone countries, taken together, and it may be that its economists believe this will cause a recession in the UK too.

What the OECD forecasts do show, however, is that even if the OBR are right about the outlook for the UK in coming quarters, the UK is experiencing a relatively slow economic recovery. Four years after the economy went into recession, real GDP will still be almost 4 per cent lower than at its peak. This makes the recovery slower than any economic recovery in the UK in the last century; it also means that the UK recovery is slower than those of all the other G7 economies bar Italy.

Why is this the case? In a recent speech, Adam Posen, one of the external members of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee, analysed the gap between the recovery in the US and the recovery in the UK. He concluded that it was largely the result of differences in fiscal policy. The more aggressive fiscal tightening in the UK led to weaker consumer spending growth, which in turn helped explain why investment had failed to recover in the UK as fast as in the US.

When it came to power, the coalition argued that it had no choice but to increase taxes and make substantial cuts in public spending to eliminate the fiscal deficit over the course of four years (a timetable that has now been extended to six years). It also argued that this would not be bad for growth because private sector activity would expand to fill the gap left by the public sector.

The first proposition is still open to debate - and without a counterfactual we will never know for sure whether the government was right or not. But the second proposition has been shown to be false. Whether the OECD or the OBR are proved to be right about growth in the first quarter of 2012, by any measure the economic recovery in the UK has been hugely disappointing since the coalition took office.

Rather than stimulate activity in the private sector, austerity in the public sector has made it less willing to invest and recruit. Fiscal tightening has been bad for growth.

Tony Dolphin is the senior economist at ippr

Chancellor George Osborne. Photo: Getty Images

Tony Dolphin is chief economist at IPPR

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

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