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.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

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