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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Commons Confidential: Gaffe-tastic Johnson, a missing Osborne, and a bit of May-hem

Plus rumours that Sir Keir “Call Me Mr” Starmer will throw his flat cap into the next Labour Party leadership contest.

Unlike Theresa May, the gaffe-tastic Boris Johnson is sackable. The blond bumbler did himself no favours by upsetting British Sikhs with his gurdwara “clinky” booze talk in a mock Indian accent, or foreshadowing the social care switch before his Downing Street line manager executed the humiliating manifesto manoeuvre.

May-hem’s position is assured as Prime Minister should the Tories win the election, but not so Johnson’s as Foreign Secretary. I hear that Johnson, too often the cause of chaos in the Conservative Party coalition, has made a dangerous enemy in Team May. Nick Timothy, May’s joint chief of staff, is said to be agitating for BoJo to be reshuffled ahead of the Brexit negotiations. Tick-tock.

Unless he has slipped into the building under cover of night, George Osborne hasn’t been seen at BlackRock’s London HQ since signing a £650,000 contract earlier this year, whispers my snout. Perhaps the former Tory chancellor is too busy, work on the London Evening Standard free sheet leaving an editor training on the job looking distinctly jaded. With BlackRock’s speculators nervous about divulging secrets to a budding journalist, the rapacious New York-based capitalist citadel would be forgiven if it wondered whether Boy George is value for money.

He is the son of a toolmaker and a nurse and is named after the Labour socialist Keir Hardie, and his energetic election campaign is fuelling speculation that Sir Keir “Call Me Mr” Starmer will throw his flat cap into the next party leadership contest. A Unite trade union fan of Starmer (yes, they exist) insisted that Camden doesn’t carry the negative Islington baggage of the incumbent. (Starmer represents Holborn and St Pancras, a leaflet’s throw from Corbyn’s constituency.) It may also help that Starmer has fallen out with Peter Mandelson, mastermind of the Blairite counter-revolution. The Prince of Darkness angrily judges the shadow Brexit secretary to be insufficiently Euroenthusiastic. If only the electorate felt the same.

Labour’s deputy and Unite old boy, Tom Watson, has joined the GMB trade union. Sounds like a smart insurance policy when he’s fallen out badly with Len McCluskey. Everybody needs employment protection.

No gushing One Show party political broadcasts for Labour. Jeremy Corbyn and his wife, Laura Alvarez, are declining to follow Theresa and Philip May in discussing boy and girl jobs on BBC1. Corbyn is fiercely protective of his family’s privacy. The other reason, I’m told, is a fear that the Mexican Alvarez’s slight Spanish lilt might reinforce suspicions among some of Labour’s more old-school supporters that he’s a member of the London metropolitan elite.

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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