Five things George Osborne doesn't want you to know about the economy

Including, this is still the slowest recovery for 100 years, the economy is 3.3% smaller and unemployment hasn't fallen for six months.

So downgraded have our economic expectations become that unremarkable growth of 0.6% is now viewed as cause for celebration. Those who opposed George Osborne's decision to pursue austerity in 2010 are now urged to recant. But here are five reasons why it's still the Chancellor and his supporters who have all the explaining to do. 

1. This is still the slowest recovery for more than a century

Growth has returned - it was always bound to at some point - but this remains the slowest recovery for more than 100 years. Had Osborne achieved the OBR's original June 2010 forecasts, the economy would now be 8.1% larger. Instead, after a collapse in private and public investment, it's only 4% larger. To make up the lost ground since 2010, the economy would need to grow at 1.3% a quarter for the next two years. Output of 0.6% is the least we should expect. 

2. The economy is 3.3% smaller than before the crash (the US is 3% larger)

Owing to three years of anaemic growth, the economy is still 3.3% below its pre-recession peak. In the US, by contrast, where the Obama administration maintained fiscal stimulus, the economy is 3.2% larger than in 2007 (even before the Q2 figures) after growth three times greater than that of the UK since autumn 2010. And it's not just the Americans who have outpaced us. The UK recovery has been slower that of any other G7 country bar Italy. 

3. Unemployment hasn't fallen for six months and underemployment is at a record high

Before the economy returned to growth, the Tories were hailing the employment figures as this government's success story (as they did when the most recent were published). But the data, as so often, tells a different story. After falling from 8.4% to 7.7% between November 2011 and November 2012, the headline rate of unemployment has been stuck at around 7.8% for the last six months (read Alex's superb myth-busting post), 0.1% higher than its previous low.

That total joblessness has not risen to the heights experienced in the 1980s owes more to the willingness of workers to price themselves into employment (real wages have fallen by a remarkable 9%) than the success of the government's strategy.  

Alongside this, underemployment is surging, with a record 1.45m in part-time jobs because they can't find full-time work. Worst of all, long-term unemployment (those out of work for more than a year) has reached a 17-year high of 915,000 and youth unemployment is at 959,000 (20.9%).

4.  His deficit reduction plan failed and he's forecast to borrow £245bn more

For a man whose raison d'etre is deficit reduction ("The deficit reduction programme takes precedence over any of the other measures in this agreement," states the Coalition Agreement), Osborne isn't very good at it. Having originally pledged to eliminate the structural deficit by 2014-15 and ensure that debt is falling as a proportion of GDP by 2015-16, he's been forced to push both targets back to 2017-18.

Contrary to what some on the right claim, this isn't due to any lack of austerity. Infrastructure spending has been slashed by 42%, VAT has been increased to 20% and 356,000 public sector jobs have been cut, so that the state workforce is now at its lowest level since 1999. Despite all this, Osborne is still forecast to borrow £245bn more than planned across this parliament and more in five years than Labour did in 13. 

5. Most people are still getting poorer - and that won't change soon

While the media and the political class fixate over GDP, it's a poor measure of the nation's economic health. As we saw even before the crash, a growing economy can disguise stagnating or falling wages for the majority. In the year to May 2013, total pay rose by just 1.7%, more than two percentage points below the rate of inflation (2.9%). Since the election, average pay has fallen by £1,350 a year in real terms, with most now earning no more than they were in 2003. And the situation is unlikely to improve anytime soon. Wages aren't expected to outstrip inflation until 2015 at the earliest and earnings for low and middle income families won't reach pre-recession levels until 2023

George Osborne attends a press conference on July 19, 2013 during the G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors' meeting in Moscow. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump