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.

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What Donald Trump could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement.

“No one remembers who came in second.” That wisdom, frequently dispensed by the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, came back to haunt him this week. Trump’s loss in the Iowa Republican caucuses to the Texas senator Ted Cruz, barely beating Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for second place, was the first crack in a campaign that has defied all expectations.

It has been a campaign built on Trump’s celebrity. Over the past eight months, his broad name recognition, larger-than-life personality and media savvy have produced a theatrical candidacy that has transfixed even those he repels. The question now is whether that celebrity will be enough – whether a man so obsessed with being “Number One” can bounce back from defeat.

Iowa isn’t everything, after all. It didn’t back the eventual Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Nor, for that matter, in 1980, when another “celebrity” candidate was in the mix. That was the year Iowa picked George H W Bush over Ronald Reagan – the former actor whom seasoned journalists dismissed as much for his right-wing views as for his “B-movie” repertoire. But Reagan regrouped, romped to victory in the New Hampshire primary and rode a wave of popular support all the way to the White House.

Trump might hope to replicate that success and has made a point of pushing the Reagan analogy more generally. Yet it is a comparison that exposes Trump’s weaknesses and his strengths.

Both men were once Democrats who came later in life to the Republican Party, projecting toughness, certainty and unabashed patriotism. Trump has even adopted Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “make America great again”. Like Reagan, he has shown he can appeal to evangelicals despite question marks over his religious conviction and divorces. In his ability to deflect criticism, too, Trump has shown himself as adept as Reagan – if by defiance rather than by charm – and redefined what it means to be “Teflon” in the age of Twitter.

That defiance, however, points to a huge difference in tone between Reagan’s candidacy and Trump’s. Reagan’s vision was a positive, optimistic one, even as he castigated “big government” and the perceived decline of US power. Reagan’s America was meant to be “a city upon a hill” offering a shining example of liberty to the world – in rhetoric at least. Trump’s vision is of an America closed off from the world. His rhetoric invokes fear as often as it does freedom.

On a personal level, Reagan avoided the vituperative attacks that have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign, even as he took on the then“establishment” of the Republican Party – a moderate, urban, east coast elite. In his first run for the nomination, in 1976, Reagan even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, and came close to defeating him. But he mounted the challenge on policy grounds, advocating the so-called “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump, as the TV debates between the Republican presidential candidates made clear, does not subscribe to the same precept.

More importantly, Reagan in 1976 and 1980 was the leader of a resurgent conservative movement, with deep wells of political experience. He had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, waging a campaign to root out communist infiltrators. He had gone on to work for General Electric in the 1950s as a TV pitchman and after-dinner speaker, honing a business message that resonated beyond the “rubber chicken circuit”.

In 1964 he grabbed headlines with a televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater – a bright spot in Goldwater’s otherwise ignominious campaign. Two years later he was elected governor of California – serving for eight years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous state. He built a conservative record on welfare reform, law and order, and business regulation that he pushed on to the federal agenda when he ran for president.

All this is to say that Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. By contrast, Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement – which enhanced his “outsider” status, perhaps, but not his ground game. So far, he has run on opportunism, tapping in to popular frustration, channelled through a media megaphone.

In Iowa, this wasn’t enough. To win the nomination he will have to do much more to build his organisation. He will be hoping that in the primaries to come, voters do remember who came in second. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war