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

A

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
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The future of the left: The path ahead is full of challenges

Be in no doubt: the left faces a struggle for survival.

There are plenty of grounds for pessimism about the left’s prospects and they are well rehearsed.  Across Europe, social democrats are out of power and when they do manage to enter government, it is under the skirts of dominant centre-right parties or at the helm of fragile coalitions. Ageing western societies have become more conservative, immigration has driven a cultural wedge into the cross-class coalitions that once undergirded centre-left voting blocs, and austerity has ushered in a politics of security, not reform. Only those who have borne the brunt of the financial crisis and its aftermath, like the unemployed youth and evicted homeowners of Southern Europe, have swung decisively to the left, joined by relatively protected but angry older middle class liberals of Northern Europe. Even in Latin America, where the left swept the board at the turn of the century, politics is shifting to the right. Bright spots, such as municipal experimentalism in Spanish cities, or energetic liberalism in Canada and Italy, illuminate the gloom. But mostly, darkness is visible.

Is this condition terminal? Inequality, stagnant living standards and the turbulence of global capitalism generate profound political discontent. They give oxygen to progressive protest movements as well as populist reactionaries, as the convulsions in US politics show. But only a facile determinism reads off political progress from economic crisis. There is nothing to guarantee that revulsion at political and economic elites will give birth to a new egalitarianism. The left needs a clearer headed view of the political terrain that it will face in the 2020s.

Demographic change is a given. Advanced democracies like Britain will get older and the weight of older voters in elections will increase, not diminish. The gap in turnout rates between young and old is unlikely to close, tilting politics even further towards the cultural concerns and economic interests of the over fifties. Leadership credentials and economic competence matter for these voters more than abstract appeals to equality. But a generation of young people will also enter middle age in the 2020s having endured the worst of the age of austerity, with lower wages, stymied home ownership aspirations and stunted career progression to show for it. So just as 20th century catch-all parties built cross-class electoral alliances, successful political movements in the coming decades will need to secure inter-generational voting blocs. Stitching these together will foreground the politics of family and focus policy attention on transfers of wealth and opportunity across multiple generations. 

Ageing will also ratchet up fiscal pressures on the state, as costs mount for the NHS, care of the elderly and pensions. But Britain’s tax base has been weakened by low productivity, corporate tax avoidance and expensive personal allowance giveaways. In the 2020s, this crunch will loom large over fiscal policy and force hard choices over priorities. Just as in the 1990s, we can expect public disquiet at the run-down of investment in public services to mount, but this time there won’t be the same spending headroom to respond to it. The political debate currently underway in Scotland about raising income tax is therefore a harbinger of the future for the rest of the UK.

Fiscal constraints will also force the left to take seriously the agenda of economic reform opened up under the ungainly title of “pre-distribution”. Without an account of how to generate and share prosperity more equitably within the market economy, social democracy is purposeless. But it will need a far more robust and plausible political strategy for achieving these ambitions than anything that has been on offer hitherto. Technological change will not usher in a new economy of its own accord, and without the solid base of an organised working class to ground its politics, the left needs to be open to a wide set of alliances with businesses, big and small. Combining economic radicalism with credibility and popular appeal, particularly to voters who still blame it for the financial crisis, is the hardest challenge the left faces, but there is no getting away from it.

On a note of optimism, the left is currently strong in cities, from which it can build out. Diversity is a strength in major urban centres, not a weakness, and powerful city leaders endow progressive politics with governing authority. Cities are the places where new social movements are most active and much of the energy of contemporary politics can be found, even if elections are fought on wider terrain. The task is to combine a propensity to decentralise and devolve with clear national political direction. The same holds with party reform: the mass political parties of the 20th century are dead, but networks can’t fight elections, so combining openness and democratic engagement, with discipline and national purpose, is vital. 

Nick Pearce is the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.