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

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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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