Why the Tories shouldn't get excited about "good" economic news

The economy might appear to be improving but forecasters predict a "triple-dip recession" and rising unemployment.

This week's economic news has prompted hope among the Tories that the tide is finally turning in their favour. Employment is at a record high, inflation is down to 2.2 per cent, its lowest level since November 2009, and borrowing has fallen to its lowest level for four years. The positive trend will continue next week when the Office for National Statistics (ONS) announces that the economy finally returned to growth in the third quarter (the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, for instance, has predicted growth of 0.8 per cent). Team Osborne hope that all of this will allow them to tell a plausible story of recovery.

However, it's worth pointing out several inconvenient truths. First, the next set of growth figures will be artificially inflated by the bounce back from the extra bank holiday in the previous quarter (which reduced growth by an estimated 0.5 per cent) and by the inclusion of the Olympic ticket sales (which are expected to add around 0.2 per cent to GDP). So, if the ONS announces that the economy grew by 0.8 per cent in the third quarter, the underlying rate of growth will be just 0.1 per cent.

Worse, many expect the economy to contract in the fourth quarter (what our economics editor David Blanchflower has termed a "triple-dip recession"). Bank of England MPC member Martin Weale has warned: "The Jubilee depressed output in the second quarter so you get an automatic bounce back. But if we talk about underlying growth then I think the economy is flat. I certainly would not say there is no risk of [a triple-dip recession] happening." Martin Beck, UK economist at Capital Economics, told the Today programme last week: "we expect the economy to start contracting again in the fourth quarter."

On employment, the picture is similarly mixed. As I noted when the most recent figures were published on Wednesday, 59 per cent of the 212,000 jobs created in the last quarter are part-time and nearly half (101,000) are in London, suggesting that the labour market benefited from a temporary Olympics effect. Adequately paid, full-time employment is still remarkably hard to come by. Of the new jobs created over the last three months, one in three offer fewer than 15 hours week a work, while 54 per cent offer fewer than 30 hours. A near-record 1.4 million people are working part-time because they can't find full-time jobs. It's also worth noting that most forecasters expect unemployment to rise significantly next year as further spending cuts, a lack of growth and rising productivity restrict job creation. The CBI, for instance, predicts that unemployment will increase by nearly 200,000 to 2.7m.

Finally, the deficit. While September's figures were better-than-expected, borrowing so far this year remains £2.7bn (4.2 per cent) higher than in the same period last year and George Osborne is still expected to miss his annual target by £5-10bn. The Chancellor aims to borrow no more than £121bn this year, but in the first six months of 2012 he's borrowed £65.1bn. As a result, when he delivers his autumn statement on 5 December, Osborne will likely be forced to postpone his goal of eliminating the structural deficit (originally scheduled for 2015) for a third year - to 2018. Having once hoped to offer significant cuts in taxation at the next election, the Tories will only be able to promise yet more austerity.

Chancellor George Osborne speaks at the Conservative conference in Manchester earlier this month. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

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