The inflation hawks were wrong

As NS economics editor David Blanchflower predicted, inflation has plummeted in the last year.

Last year, as inflation rose to more than 4 per cent (it eventually peaked at 5.2 per cent last September), a band of right-wing commentators and economists demanded that the Bank of England hike interest rates in an attempt to bring prices down. Andrew Sentance, then a member of the Bank's Monetary Policy Committee (MPC), bemoaned "the lack of a substantive policy response to persistent above-target inflation" and warned that "if we do not start to raise UK interest rates gradually soon, we risk having to do so more aggressively in the future". A fearful leader in the Spectator declared: "Inflation is back with a vengeance...Britain is once again in an inflationary cycle...For how much longer can high inflation be described as a blip?"

Others, however, including New Statesman economics editor David Blanchflower, argued that the spike was largely due to temporary factors such as the VAT increase, higher global commodity prices, and the depreciation of sterling, and predicted that inflation would fall back in 2012. In February 2011, in a piece entitled "Stop worrying about inflation", Blanchflower wrote:

Inflation is going to collapse in 2012 when the impact of the one-off increase in VAT, oil and commodity prices and the exchange-rate depreciation mechanically drop out of the inflation calculations. As Mervyn noted in his recent speech, these three items alone account for 3 per cent of the current 3.7 per cent CPI inflation rate.

Well, the results are in and it looks like Blanchflower was right again (as I've noted before, he was one of the few economists to warn that George Osborne's excessive austerity measures would trigger a double-dip recession). Inflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index, was just 2.2% last month, the lowest level since November 2009 (see graph below) and only 0.2 per cent above the Bank's target rate.

Inflation is expected to rise over the next few months as this year's round of energy price increases take effect, but it is still likely to remain close to the 2 per cent target rate (which should, in any case, be raised). This should prompt the Bank to keep interest rates at their record low of 0.5 per cent and consider a third round of quantitative easing. As in the US, where Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke has pledged to keep rates near zero until at least mid-2015, sustained monetary stimulus is needed to support growth and employment, not least when the government's fiscal policy remains so determinedly self-defeating. While it appears that the economy returned to growth in the third quarter, the danger of a contraction in the fourth quarter (a triple-dip recession) remains. Had the Bank listened to the inflation hawks and hiked rates, the UK would have suffered an ever deeper double-dip.

It was already clear that the Hayekian right was disastrously wrong about fiscal policy; now it's clear that it was wrong about monetary policy too.

The Bank of England building on Threadneedle Street in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide