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
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.