Stop focusing on triple dips. Anaemic growth is just as bad

Welcome to stagnation. It's not a nice place to be.

Tomorrow, the ONS will release its second estimate of GDP growth for the fourth quarter of 2012. The revisions may be up or down, and you'd be a fool to bet on which direction it will be. But barring a miracle, it's still going to be terrible growth.

That's true even if the revisions push the estimated contraction into positive territory. Such is the focus on whether or not Britain will enter a "technical recession" for the second time running that we have started to act as if anaemic growth is acceptable. It isn't.

If nothing else, it's important to remember that GDP staying flat is the equivalent of every individual in Britain getting poorer. That's because the British population is growing, usually by somewhere between 0.5 and 1 per cent a year (0.7 per cent according to the most recent figures from the World Bank). As a result, GDP per capita, the share of the national income that each of us receives, is correspondingly lower than GDP. Unless annual GDP growth is higher than population growth, it's not even really fair to say we're "stagnating". We are getting poorer.

But even discounting that possibility, stagnation above the rate of population growth remains an extremely concerning phenomenon. 2013 overall will probably experience real growth in GDP per capita. NIESR's economic forecasts put it at 0.4 per cent growth per capita, and 1.1 per cent GDP growth:

But 1.1 per cent growth is far, far below anything that Britain would need to either keep deficit reduction on track (the main worry if you're George Osborne) or to prevent further erosion of crucial public services (the main worry if you're anyone else). The Bank of England, which made similar projections to NIESR, is so shocked that it is prepared to overlook its entire raison d'être and allow a period of above-target inflation to get us out of those doldrums.

The OBR, kings of the downward revision, have spent the last three years forecasting that 2 per cent growth was just around the corner. That remains their forecast, and currently that growth rate is projected for 2014. The OBR has previously forecast two per cent growth for 2011, 2012 and 2013. Whether that continued optimism is justified or not, when future economic plans are based on it, every miss hits even harder.

(To be clear, the problem isn't that the OBR is frequently wrong. All economic forecasts are hugely variable, and the agency makes clear in its outlooks that the rage of probable outcomes is large. The problem is that the OBR is frequently wrong in the same direction. For over two years now, it has predicted growth above the actual outcome. If someone misses the bullseye nine times in a row, they're just unlucky — but if every one of those shots hits above the centre, it's pretty likely that they need to start aiming lower.)

The worst thing about accepting stagnation as a natural, even positive, outcome is that it will lead to a huge amount of unnecessary pain. It's not just that we won't grow fast enough. It's also that we'll be trapped in a dead zone of investment, too poor for the government to finally decide it has "enough money" to start dealing with our broken housing market and crumbling infrastructure, but growing just enough that it won't be forced to abandon austerity and enact pro-growth measures which actually work.

But if the right is wrongly promoting the acceptability of stagnation, there's a parallel criticism for the left. A "technical recession" isn't that much worse than minuscule growth. The difference between 0.1 per cent contraction and 0.1 per cent growth is 0.2 percentage points. A truism, certainly, but if the Chancellor's forecast was for 2.0 per cent and the outcome was 1.8 per cent, there would be little commentary.

As our economy floats along at the zero line, sometimes slightly over, sometimes slightly under, the temptation may be to crow every time the latter occurs. But that runs the risk of implying that the former is acceptable, when it really isn't. Our corrugated economy is the problem, and that's not going away any time soon.

This puppy is sad at British economic stagnation. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.