Whether or not you include oil, Osborne's economic record is atrocious

Double-dip or not, stagnation is here for sure.

Earlier this week I wrote that overly focusing on the prospect of a "triple dip" recession was blinding too many to the equally damaging prospect of continued stagnation. Maybe I was too specific; it seems that some are still focusing on the last recession (the one we now call the double-dip).

The Telegraph quotes the chief economist of Henderson Global Investors, Simon Ward, who argues that "Britain never had a double dip recession". Building on the recent upward revisions to the ONS' estimates of growth in 2012, Ward says that:

The “phantom” recessions reflected continuing weak North Sea oil and gas extraction and when that was stripped out, it revealed that there had never been a ‘double-dip’ in the UK onshore economy.

Mr Ward said North Sea oil production is supply-driven, and while it has been weak because of reserves depletion and unusual maintenance shutdowns, "these are of no relevance to the wider economy so it is reasonable to strip out the North Sea when assessing underlying trends".

Of course, if it's necessary to retrospectively strip out resource extraction from estimates of the economy, it's necessary to strip it out entirely. That would present a rather different view of, for instance, the economic competency of Margaret Thatcher, presiding over the original North Sea oil boom. It would also be a blow for advocates of fracking, as their desired resource boom would be excluded from the metrics.

As it is, the ONS already produces a metric for GDP growth excluding oil and gas (it's series KLH8, if you want to check it out). It only goes back to 1997, so we can't test the Thatcher proposition, but it's pretty clear that our oil and gas industries have been declining for quite some time. Every time they've had an effect since 2003, it's been negative, and even before then, it was rarely hugely positive. It's fair to say that, if ignoring resource extraction makes Osborne look economically competent, it makes Gordon Brown look like a genius chancellor, consistently achieving even more growth than he is already given credit for.

As it is, we don't strip out those industries unless we're making a very specific point, because they are part of the economy, and GDP is supposed to be a measure of the whole economy, not just the parts which are reflective of "underlying trends".

But again, this is all arguing a moot point. Even if we did strip out the effects of oil and gas extraction from the first quarter of 2012 only, thus ensuring that George Osborne avoided a technical recession by the narrowest margin possible, he would still have a terrible record on growth. The real world growth figures for our double dip were contractions of 0.3, 0.1 and 0.3 per cent respectively for Q4 2011 and Q1+2 2012. The figures Ward wants to use instead show a contraction of 0.2 per cent, then perfect stagnation, and then a contraction of 0.3 per cent.

In no world is 0 per cent growth (and, as I've said before, contraction in per capita GDP) between two quarters of contraction acceptable. Yet by focusing so heavily on the difference between -0.1 per cent and 0 per cent, Osborne and his defenders are able to claim that it's just a statistical quirk that gives him his bad reputation, rather than something far more intrinsic.

Double dip… a bactrian camel with its newborn calf in Budapest, Hungary. 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 Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.