On the edge

If the UK is to turn its economy around, the two key factors will be exports and productivity.

Is the UK back in recession? The OECD, a think-tank that governments love to have on their side, believes that the economic recovery has gone into reverse over the last six months. For once, most other economic forecasters disagree, and think the OECD is being far too gloomy; the consensus seems to lie with Mervyn King's "zig-zag" rather than the OECD's "double dip".

Does any of this matter? Hardly. There will be a media storm on 25 April if the GDP figures show that the economy has slipped back into recession, but the question is largely academic. For the 2.7 million Britons looking for a job, and the further 1.4 million unable to find full-time work, it will make very little difference whether the UK is technically back in recession or not.

The fact is that the UK economy is in a far more serious state than the odd double dip can do justice to. The economy has not grown for 18 months, while unemployment has increased by over 200,000 - that is far more serious than a temporary, technical recession. Flatlining is not what is supposed to happen after a recession; we were expecting faster-than-normal growth to make up some of what was lost after the financial crisis. At the Budget in 2010, the Office for Budget Responsibility forecast that the economy would grow by 2.3 per cent in 2011. It has been downgrading its forecasts ever since.

And there is little chance that the economy will ever regain the ground lost during the recession. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility, the recession will eventually leave an 11 per cent scar on the UK economy, almost five years' worth of growth that we will never get back. What we are dealing with is not just an economic slump - there is a serious problem with the way the UK economy works.

The most alarming symptom has been a dramatic slump in productivity. The value of what we produce per hour of work has fallen by 3.3 per cent since the end of 2007 - it should have increased by about 9 per cent. I don't expect many people feel they have become less productive or hard-working since the recession hit, but the value of what we collectively produce has fallen nonetheless. Of course, that productivity shock translates into a wage shock, which is why real incomes have fallen. (There is a silver lining, in that this drop in wages has stopped unemployment climbing even higher).

Now falling incomes mean that we have less money to spend, which means there is less opportunity for firms to make money in the UK, which is likely to mean further falls in incomes and fewer jobs. And that's not all we have to contend with - there is also the household debt burden left over from the financial crisis that we need to deal with, which further reduces spending. (There has been some debate in recent weeks over whether it is household debt or bank debt that causes the problems, but again this debate is academic - either way, consumer spending is squeezed).

As a result of this squeeze, the UK's domestic demand fell by 0.8 per cent during 2011. Had it not been for exports, the economy would have shrunk last year, and we'd have already had first-hand experience of a double dip recession. There are plenty of reasons why the UK economy remains in such a precarious position.

But there is some good news amidst the gloom: we are finally beginning to see exports grow significantly, several years after the devaluation of sterling in 2007. This export boom saved the economy from recession in 2011, and remains our best hope for a speedy recovery. It might also help to solve one of the core problems with the British economy; since 1997, we have consistently imported more than we export, and haven't been able to pay our way in the world.

If the UK is to turn its economy around, the two key factors will be exports and productivity. These two issues go to the heart of the underlying changes the economy needs; we need to increase the value of what we do, and sell more of it to the world. Overseas markets are the only place Britain can look to for growing demand at present, and exports are already helping to drag the economy out of the mire. But if any recovery is to be sustained, it must be accompanied by solid growth in productivity, on which the signs are much less encouraging. Reversing the UK's productivity shock will be a longer and more laborious project.

If they are to have any realistic plan for recovery, politicians of all stripes need to worry less about short-term fluctuations, and more about the key underlying factors that will make or break the economy over the next decade. There is little we can do to treat the after-symptoms of the financial crisis, but there is plenty of scope for re-making the UK economy.

Andrew Sissons is a researcher at the Big Innovation Centre at the Work Foundation

David Cameron at a GSK plant. Photo: Getty Images

Andrew Sissons is a researcher at the Big Innovation Centre based at the Work Foundation.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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