Do we have too little economic data, or too much?

Counting cranes and railroad traffic.

The Financial Times' economics editor, Chris Giles, has found a new source of data, quietly released by the UK's Health and Safety Executive, which we really should have been checking as an indicator of recovery:

The HSE started requiring the operators of tower cranes – used for new office buildings, infrastructure, larger residential blocks and big public sector projects – to register their addresses in 2010, providing an invaluable snapshot of the building industry in action.

Sadly, the HSE's figures don't actually show a boom just around the corner. Instead, they highlight the gulf between the capital and the rest of the country:

…With London home to only one in eight people in the UK, it has seen more tower cranes notified to the HSE than all the rest of the UK put together. Almost eight in 10 cranes were in London, the southeast and the east of England.

And what national changes they do show aren't actually that good at all:

The total number of cranes registered with the HSE has been falling since 2010, reflecting the difficulties construction companies have faced and cuts in government school and hospital building programmes. In 2010 and 2011, an average of more than 130 new crane sites were notified each month, falling to fewer than 100 in 2012.

It's interesting that journalists, in our need to be the first at everything, have reached the point of re-inventing the national statistics agency. Because while counting cranes is a canny way to get an indicator of where a sector of the economy is at, it's not all that new an idea.

In fact, back in the Great Depression, that was the only way to get anything done. FDR knew that he needed a more accurate way of judging whether his policies were working than just waiting and hoping that the recovery would be obvious; but without a modern statistics agency, he couldn't check the quarterly GDP figures or monthly unemployment figures. So the only way to get up-to-date information was to use proxies; in this case, by looking at railroad traffic, a proxy which is still reported to this day.

The tension is always there, because to actually get an accurate view of the economic situation takes an age. For instance, it now looks likely that when Nigel Lawson made his much-mocked "green shoots of recovery" comment in the early 1990s the economy was actually starting to grow; it was the figures which were incorrect, not the statement. But it took nearly a decade for the ONS to refine its data to the extent that it showed the true picture.

In a way, what we need are fewer stats, not more. Rather than hunting for better, quicker proxies to get a rule-of-thumb picture of the economy, we should be questioning whether we even want to put too much importance on the preliminary GDP estimates, which do, after all, change all the time.

But then we don't get to count cranes.

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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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.