The OBR's fiscal outlook in five charts

The OBR looked at fiscal sustainability today. Here's what they found.

Forecasting is hard

Page 106, thanks to Ed Conway

I'll admit, I have an idiosyncratic sense of humour. But still, I laughed out loud at this tangle of lines, which shows the OBR's best attempts to forecast oil and gas revenues. It's reminiscent of the woefully optimistic IMF forecasts for Greek GDP, excel that instead of being consistently wrong in the same direction, it's more like a child just scribbled a lot of lines on the chart.

Unfortunately, the oil and gas revenues remain important. Thanks to the long-standing decline in productivity in the sector, a function of the drying-up of North Sea oil fields, it usually imparts a massive downward pressure on the quarterly GDP figures, which means that getting the predictions accurate is crucial for getting the overall figure accurate.

Migration saves us money

Page 147, thanks to Jonathan Portes

If you care about public sector debt, really the absolute best thing you can do is remove restrictions on migration. Migrants are educated by their home country, and frequently retire there too; in the meantime, they work hard, pay their taxes, and have a lower-than-average crime rate.

The "high migration" scenario is of the average net migration being slightly more than double what the ONS uses as its baseline assumption, with 260,000 people coming in on net compared to 140,000. That's a lot more than normal, but it's not outside the realm of political possibility. Just think what a fully open-borders policy could do for the national accounts…

At the other end, the ONS looks at what "zero net migration" would do. Remember that zero net migration is actually the government's explicit policy, so it's already a bit damning that the ONS instead works on the assumption that they will fail to hit it by 140,000 people. But when we look at the stats, it's clear that we should be glad of that. Zero net migration would push the debt:GDP ratio over 100 per cent by 2050.

Young people and old people cost money

Page 78, thanks to Chris Giles

Again, nothing which will blow your mind: the state spends money educating young people, caring for old people, and providing health services to both, while the people in the middle pay the bills. What's interesting are the two crossover points – roughly 23 and 67 years old – where people go from being, on average, a contributor to a benefactor or vice versa, as well as the curious level of the peak of tax contributions, at just under 50.

You are never going to retire

Page 117

The thick line is the OBR's best guess of what changes to the pension age are going to do to the proportion of people between 65 and 74 working: around a 66 per cent increase, to just over a quarter of those people working by 2045. That already comes after a doubling of the rate in the last twenty years:

We are never ever ever getting time off work.

This is all just guesswork

Page 11

Finally, an important reminder that the long-term projections are as vague as can be. In fact, discussing them in terms of fiscal policy is almost nonsensical. What they are instead is predictions of demographic change mapped on to current policy. So if the nation continues ageing as it looks like it will be, and if we fail to do reform the state pension in that time, then the national debt will start rising on current policies in 2037.

Obviously, it's nonsense to act as though all our policies will be the same in 2017, let alone 20 years after that, but it's the only way talk about the future at all.

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
Show Hide image

Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.