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 will the 2017 local elections tell us about the general election?

In her timing of the election, Theresa May is taking a leaf out of Margaret Thatcher's book. 

Local elections are, on the whole, a much better guide to the next general election than anything the polls might do.

In 2012, Kevin Cunningham, then working in Labour’s targeting and analysis team, surprised his colleagues by announcing that they had lost the 2015 election. Despite gaining 823 councillors and taking control of 32 more local authorities, Cunningham explained to colleagues, they hadn’t made anything like the gains necessary for that point in the parliament. Labour duly went on to lose, in defiance of the polls, in 2015.

Matt Singh, the founder of NumberCruncherPolitics, famously called the polling failure wrong, in part because Labour under Ed Miliband had underperformed their supposed poll share in local elections and parliamentary by-elections throughout the parliament.

The pattern in parliamentary by-elections and local elections under Jeremy Corbyn before the European referendum all pointed the same way – a result that was not catastrophically but slightly worse than that secured by Ed Miliband in 2015. Since the referendum, thanks to the popularity of Theresa May, the Conservative poll lead has soared but more importantly, their performance in contests around the country has improved, too.

As regular readers will know, I was under the impression that Labour’s position in the polls had deteriorated during the coup against Corbyn, but much to my surprise, Labour’s vote share remained essentially stagnant during that period. The picture instead has been one of steady deterioration, which has accelerated since the calling of the snap election. So far, voters buy Theresa May’s message that a large majority will help her get a good Brexit deal. (Spoiler alert: it won’t.)

If the polls are correct, assuming a 2020 election, what we would expect at the local elections would be for Labour to lose around 100 councillors, largely to the benefit of the Liberal Democrats, and the Conservatives to pick up around 100 seats too, largely to the detriment of Ukip.

But having the local elections just five weeks before the general elections changes things. Basically, what tends to happen in local elections is that the governing party takes a kicking in off-years, when voters treat the contests as a chance to stick two fingers up to the boost. But they do better when local elections are held on the same day as the general election, as voters tend to vote for their preferred governing party and then vote the same way in the elections on the same day.

The Conservatives’ 2015 performance is a handy example of this. David Cameron’s Tories gained 541 councillors that night. In 2014, they lost 236, in 2013 they lost 335, and in 2012 they lost 405. In 2011, an usually good year for the governing party, they actually gained 86, an early warning sign that Miliband was not on course to win, but one obscured because of the massive losses the Liberal Democrats sustained in 2011.

The pattern holds true for Labour governments, too. In 2010, Labour gained 417 councillors, having lost 291 and 331 in Gordon Brown’s first two council elections at the helm. In 2005, with an electoral map which, like this year’s was largely unfavourable to Labour, Tony Blair’s party only lost 114 councillors, in contrast to the losses of 464 councillors (2004), 831 councillors (2003) and 334 councillors (2002).  This holds true all the way back to 1979, the earliest meaningful comparison point thanks to changes to local authorities’ sizes and electorates, where Labour (the governing party) gained council seats after years of losing them.

So here’s the question: what happens when local elections are held in the same year but not the same day as local elections? Do people treat them as an opportunity to kick the government? Or do they vote “down-ticket” as they do when they’re held on the same day?

Before looking at the figures, I expected that they would be inclined to give them a miss. But actually, only the whole, these tend to be higher turnout affairs. In 1983 and 1987, although a general election had not been yet called, speculation that Margaret Thatcher would do so soon was high. In 1987, Labour prepared advertisements and a slogan for a May election. In both contests, voters behaved much more like a general election, not a local election.

The pattern – much to my surprise – holds for 1992, too, when the Conservatives went to the country in April 1992, a month before local elections. The Conservatives gained 303 seats in May 1992.

What does this mean for the coming elections? Well, basically, a good rule of thumb for predicting general elections is to look at local election results, and assume that the government will do a bit better and the opposition parties will do significantly worse.

(To give you an idea: two years into the last parliament, Labour’s projected national vote share after the local elections was 38 per cent. They got 31 per cent. In 1985, Labour’s projected national vote share based on the local elections was 39 per cent, they got 30 per cent. In 2007, the Conservatives projected share of the vote was 40 per cent – they got 36 per cent, a smaller fall, but probably because by 2010 Gordon Brown was more unpopular even than Tony Blair had been by 2007.)

In this instance, however, the evidence suggests that the Tories will do only slightly better and Labour and the Liberal Democrats only slightly worse in June than their local election performances in May. Adjust your sense of  what “a good night” for the various parties is accordingly. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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