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

Including, this is still the slowest recovery for 100 years, the economy is 2.9% smaller and most people are still getting poorer.

After the economy grew for two consecutive quarters and growth forecasts were revised from the terrible to the merely mediocre, George Osborne has decided it's time to declare victory. In his speech earlier today in east London, the Chancellor claimed that "those in favour of a Plan B have lost the argument" and that Britain was "turning the corner". The media, most of which endorsed austerity in 2010, has every interest in echoing his words. 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 (and no Keynesian ever suggested otherwise) - 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 0.7% is the least we should expect (not least when the population is growing). 

2. The economy is 2.9% smaller than before the crash (the US is 4.5% larger)

Owing to three years of anaemic growth, the economy is still 2.9% below its pre-recession peak. In the US, by contrast, where the Obama administration maintained fiscal stimulus, the economy is 4.5% larger than in 2007 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 near-record high

Before the economy returned to growth, the Tories were hailing employment 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, 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 near-unprecedented 9%) than the success of the government's strategy.  

Alongside this, underemployment is surging, with a record 1.43m 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) is at a near-record high and youth unemployment is at 973,000 (21.4%).

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. Between April and June, average weekly earnings (excluding bonuses) rose by just 1.1% compared with a year earlier, 1.7 percentage points below the rate of inflation (2.8%). 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, a worse performance than every EU country except Portugal, the Netherlands and Greece.

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 takes part in a panel session on the main stage at the Campus Party computer coding event at the 02 on September 4, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.