A recession warning for Osborne

The UK is forecast to recover at a slower rate than every G7 country except Italy.

Away from pasties and jerry cans, there's the small matter of our shrinking economy. Yesterday the Office for National Statistics revised growth for the final quarter of 2011 down to -0.3 per cent, today the OECD predicted that the UK will suffer a double-dip recession - defined as two consecutive quarters of negative growth. The economy is forecast to shrink by -0.1 per cent in the first quarter of this year.

And that's not the only prediction to haunt George Osborne's nights. As the OECD table below shows, the UK is expected to recover at a slower rate than every G7 country except Italy.

GDP growth in the G7 economies

Annualised quarter-on-quarter growth


While we're forecast to contract by 0.4 per cent [in annual terms] in the next quarter, the US, where the Obama administration has maintained fiscal stimulus, is expected to grow by 2.9 per cent. Osborne's previous boast that that the UK had grown faster than the US "despite fiscal stimulus in the former and fiscal consolidation in the latter" now looks rather foolish.

As Adam Posen of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee noted in his speech yesterday:

Cumulatively, the UK government tightened fiscal policy by 3% more than the US government did - taking local governments and automatic stabilizers into account - and this had a material impact on consumption. This was particularly the case because a large chunk of the fiscal consolidation in 2010 and in 2011 took the form of a VAT increase, which has a high multiplier for households.

Today, the Chancellor has responded by noting that "our own" Office for Budget Responsibility says the UK will avoid a double-dip. Indeed, the OBR predicts growth of 0.3 per cent in the first quarter of this year. Nonetheless, Osborne has already prepared his defence, insisting that "You can't turn round the British economy overnight. It became very dependent on the City of London, very dependent on public spending which had to be borrowed and we have got to change that". But after 15 months of no growth, how many will be willing to listen?

The politics of a double-dip could be more complex than many expect. At times of economic trouble, voters often look to the government, rather than the opposition, to see them through the storm. After all, despite the near absence of growth since Osborne took the helm, the Tories retain a four-point lead over Labour as the best party to manage the economy.

Conversely, a double-dip could be the point at which the Tories are finally forced to "own" the economy, no longer able to blame "the mess" they inherited from Labour or the eurozone crisis. "The man who took us back into recession" is not an attack line that Osborne will want to hand Ed Balls. He and the rest of the coalition face a nervous wait until 25 April when the ONS publishes that all-important figure.

George Osborne insisted "you can't turn the British economy overnight". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.