The OBR needs to get it right on productivity

If our forecasts carry on being made on faulty assumptions the government will never learn.

The Office for Budget Responsibility is making a critical mistake in being excessively gloomy about a lack of productive potential in the UK since the 2007 crisis.

One of the characteristics of the recession has been how quickly employment levels have returned to pre-recession levels. The OBR interprets this as being a result of severe damage to the productive capacity of the economy. Any demand expansion through fiscal policy to stimulate growth would, in its opinion, quickly run into production bottlenecks and hence price increases rather than an increase in output. OBR estimates put spare capacity, the potential to meet any new demand, at below 3 per cent. The issue is, where's the firm evidence for this view?

Historically, the UK economy has always returned quickly to its underlying long-run trend in productivity growth following a recession, and there's nothing to suggest this pattern has changed. The OBR is simply being far too pessimistic. Based on the evidence from past trends, the current level of spare capacity is likely to be nearer to 12 per cent than 3 per cent, mostly in the form of underemployed labour. Employers have decided to hold onto workers rather than risk running down their workforce.

The OBR has powerful allies in its position on capacity from the Treasury and the Bank of England. So who's right? What can look like an academic detail around the nature of 'spare capacity' has a direct impact on the livelihoods of huge numbers of workers and their families. It's important that such powerful institutions take a closer look at why there is so much disagreement between experts.

The first step is to understand how the current recession differs from those in the past and the implications. The drop in output has been more severe and persisted far longer than all previous recessions in the past forty years. Output has still not reached its pre-recession level after five years and there is little chance of it doing so before 2015. At the same time, employment growth has confounded the forecasters. Employment fell by 600 thousand following the 2008 downturn but recovered to exceed its pre-recession level by 2012. Despite stagnant output growth, employment increased by 700 thousand (2 percentage points) between 2010 and 2012.

The overall increase in employment between 2010 and 2012 is not all that it seems at first sight. Firstly, more than half of the additional jobs have been for part-time, not full-time, workers. For women, nearly three-quarters of the extra jobs have been for part-time workers. Secondly, workers are not working as many hours as they would like. According to the Office for National Statistics, one in ten workers wanted to work more hours than they were offered during 2012; and between 2008 and 2012, the number of workers who wanted to work more hours increased by one million. Thirdly, there were half a million fewer full-time jobs in 2012 than at the start of the recession.

Employers are temporarily "hoarding" labour so that output can be increased more rapidly when demand recovers. They don't want to lose skilled and experienced workers; keeping workers on during periods of slack demand can help build morale and good relations; and laying workers off can be difficult and expensive. There is also, for example, no evidence of large-scale scrapping of plant and machinery as happened in the manufacturing sector during the recession of the early 1980s.

The likelihood that low productivity in the UK is a consequence of labour hoarding is supported by international trends. Employers in the USA are less reluctant to shed labour during recessions than UK employers. The drop in labour productivity following the financial crisis was consequently much smaller in the USA than in the UK despite a very similar drop in output. The German experience has been similar to the UK. Jobs were protected in the early part of the recession through government sponsored short-time working schemes. This resulted in a sharp drop in labour productivity and a rise in labour hoarding.

The OBR is surely wrong to assume there has been no growth in productive potential since 2007. This not only assumes that technological progress has come to a stop because of the recession, which seems most unlikely, but also denies the likelihood that productivity has been held down because of substantial labour hoarding. The existence of large amounts of spare capacity in the UK economy implies that a demand expansion could be achieved without any serious inflationary consequences. Even if the growth in productive capacity has not kept pace with its historical trend, a growth rate of only half the historical trend would still leave enough spare capacity to justify a demand injection in order to bring a quicker end to the recession.

It is surely the right time to get the economy moving forward again by financing much needed infrastructure projects and new housing developments. To do otherwise would be seriously wasteful and ongoing pessimism could lead to a withering of productive capacity over the longer term. It is high time the Treasury took some positive action instead of burying its head in the sand.

A trader sleeps at her desk. Photograph: Getty Images

Jim Taylor is an Emeritus Professor at Lancaster University Management School.

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What Labour MPs who want to elect the shadow cabinet are forgetting

The idea is to push Jeremy Corbyn to build an ideologically broad team, but it distracts from the real hurdle – management.

Labour MPs who have been critical of Jeremy Corbyn are pushing to vote for shadow cabinet members – rather than having all the posts appointed by the leader.

Most of the parliamentary Labour party who are not Corbyn loyalists believe this should be the “olive branch” he offers them, in order to put his recent words about “unity” and “wiping the slate clean” into action.

Corbyn and his allies have refused to consider such an idea outside of a “wider” democratisation of the party – saying that Labour members should also get a say in who’s on the frontbench. It’s also thought Corbyn is reluctant due to the shadow cabinet having three representatives on the National Executive Committee. He wouldn’t want his opponents voting for those, tipping the balance of the Committee back towards centrists.

Shadow cabinet elections were a longstanding convention for Labour in opposition until Ed Miliband urged the party to vote against them in 2011. Labour MPs on different wings of the party believe a return to the system would avoid Labour’s frontbench being populated solely by Corbyn’s ideological wing.

But there is a complication here (aside from the idea of a party leader having to run an effective opposition with their opponents in key shadow cabinet positions).

Proponents of shadow cabinet elections say they would help to make Labour a broad church. But really they could put those in the “make-it-work” camp who initially helped form Corbyn’s team in a difficult position. Initially conciliatory MPs like Thangam Debonnaire and Heidi Alexander have since left their posts, revealing frustration more at Corbyn’s management style than policy direction. Chi Onwurah MP, who remains a shadow minister, has also expressed such concerns.

One senior Labour MP points out that the problem with shadow cabinet elections lies in those who left Corbyn’s shadow cabinet but had wanted to cooperate – not in bringing ideological opponents into the fold.

“There were lots of people on his team who actually liked Jeremy, and wanted to make policy with him,” they tell me. “And many of them eventually felt they had to leave because of how difficult it was to work with him. They wanted to stay but couldn’t. If people like that couldn’t stay, will they go back? It will be much harder for him to show them he can work differently.”

One of the “make-it-work” faction voices their concern about returning to the shadow cabinet via elections for this reason. “A lot of us [who left] are still really interested in our policy areas and would be happy to help if they asked,” they say. “But it was too difficult to be taken seriously when you were actually in those shadow cabinet meetings.”

My source describes a non-collegiate approach in meetings around the shadow cabinet table, where Corbyn would read out pre-written opening statements and responses when they delivered their ideas. “It was like he wasn’t really listening.”

The plan to reintroduce shadow cabinet elections barely left the ground in a meeting of Labour’s National Executive Committee on Saturday night, on the eve of Labour conference.

This is in spite of Labour MPs urging the NEC to make a decision on the matter soon. Jon Ashworth, an NEC member and shadow minister, told me shortly after Corbyn’s victory speech that this would be “a good way of bringing people back” in to the team, and was determined to “get some resolution on the issue” soon.

It doesn’t look like we’ll get that yet. But for some who have already tried serving on the frontbench, it’s a distraction from what is for them a management – rather than an ideological – problem.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.