Focus on a "triple dip" misses the point

The economy is stuck and without a change in government policy the slump is set to continue, writes the TUC's Duncan Weldon.

Will the UK economy experience a triple dip recession?

The simple answer is that I simply don’t know. The more honest answer is that I don’t really think it matters. Today’s industrial production figures certainly point towards one, but last week’s PMI surveys’ suggest growth of 0.1 per cent.

In reality whilst a triple dip would no doubt generate many headlines, the difference between a Q1 GDP figure -0.1 per cent and one of +0.1 per cent is pretty unimportant, especially as the figures are subject to revision for years afterwards.

The bigger picture is that the UK’s recent economic performance has been disastrous.

Whether compared to the original forecasts (on which fiscal policy is still based), to our international peers or to our own historical experience, this has been an extremely weak recovery.

The much-hoped for rebalancing has simply not occurred. Today’s industrial production statistics tell us that industrial output is now back to 1992 levels. Business investment grew by 0.4% last year against an original forecast of 10.0%.  Net trade subtracted from growth.

The government expected growth of 2.3% in 2011 and 2.8% in 2012, with two thirds of that coming from an increase in business investment and an improvement in net trade. Instead we got neither the growth nor the rebalancing.

The result has been missed fiscal targets and a downgraded credit rating.

Real wage falls, coupled with changes to the tax credit and social security system, have given us the longest squeeze in living standards in modern British economic history.

The labour market is hailed as ‘good news; but as important research from the Resolution Foundation today demonstrates, we still face a job gap of 850,000 to get back to pre-crisis levels of employment.

Productivity growth has collapsed, risking a longer term impact on living standards and growth.

And despite all of the government’s rhetoric on the UK being in a ‘global race’ – whether you measure it by growth, exports, manufacturing output or living standards, the UK is falling behind the other leading economies.

Against a backdrop of terrible growth, no rebalancing, a living standards squeeze, a weak labour market and productivity falls, the difference between a small  contraction in Q1 and some small growth in Q1 doesn’t seem very important.

The economy is stuck and without a change in government policy the slump is set to continue.

This piece was originally published at ToUChstone, and is republished here with permission.

Cars roll off the production line, but fewer than before. Photograph: Getty Images

Duncan Weldon is a senior policy officer at the Trades Union Congress. He blogs for them at Touchstone.

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.