What Osborne won't admit: growth has increased because of slower cuts

The Chancellor's claim that "the pace of fiscal consolidation has not changed" is not supported by any of the available data.

Many others – perhaps Fraser Nelson does it best – have poked fun at the most Panglossian elements of the Chancellor’s speech on Monday. But I’d like here to address the substantive arguments he makes about what the path of the UK economy over recent years says about the impact of fiscal policy on growth.

The Chancellor doesn’t deny that growth has been much weaker than forecast, although it’s worth repeating the scale of this underperformance. In June 2010, the Office of Budget Responsibility predicted that by now the economy would be about 7 per cent larger, driven by a sharp rise in business investment and exports, while the deficit would have fallen by two-thirds. What has actually happened? In fact, GDP has grown at less than a third of that rate, business investment has fallen, and the path of deficit reduction bears no resemblance at all to the original projections (which is, as I'll elaborate below, a good thing).    

But, the Chancellor argues, this underperformance has nothing to do with fiscal policy:

the composition and timing of the slowdown in GDP growth relative to forecast is better explained by external inflation shocks, the eurozone crisis and the ongoing impact of the financial crisis on financial conditions. 

The Chancellor claimed his analysis was supported by many "independent economists" - although, oddly, he failed to mention the IMF, which has been the most prominent independent organisation to argue the contrary. Of course, the IMF and those of us who thought the fiscal consolidation plan was too aggressive never denied that these other factors played a par (and that their reversal will indeed help boost recovery).  As I put it here:

it now seems clear that the negative impact of ‘Plan A’ on growth has been significantly greater than expected, although matters have also been exacerbated by even more damaging policy mistakes in the eurozone, as well as high commodity prices.

Coincidentally, on the same day the Chancellor made his speech, other "independent economists" (Oscar Jorda and Alan Taylor) published a widely reported paper suggesting precisely the opposite (an earlier, non-technical summary is here). They find, as shown in their chart:

Without austerity, UK real output would now be steadily climbing above its 2007 peak, rather than being stuck 2% below. 

And they conclude:

Fiscal contraction prolongs the pain when the state of the economy is weak, much less so when the economy is strong....Keynes is still right, after all: “The boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity at the Treasury.

However, despite the weight of academic research, the Chancellor goes on to claim that current developments support his interpretation of recent past history:

Proponents of the ‘fiscalist’ story cannot explain why the UK recovery has strengthened rapidly over the last six months. The pace of fiscal consolidation has not changed, government spending cuts have continued as planned, and yet growth has accelerated and many of the leading economic indicators show activity rising faster than at any time since the 1990s.

But this is an obvious sleight of hand.  The claim that "the pace of fiscal consolidation has not changed" is not supported by any of the available data. Here is the OBR’s own chart. As Robert Chote, the OBR’s Chair puts it, "deficit reduction appears to have stalled".

Indeed, the OECD, the government’s favourite of the international forecasting bodies (since, as noted above, the IMF shares my interpretation of the impact of fiscal consolidation on growth) goes even further. According to its calculations, the UK is actually expanding its structural deficit in 2013. In other words, the government is engaging in fiscal stimulus.  Personally I find this implausible - the OBR's estimate is that the structural deficit was broadly flat in 2012-13 - but the data hardly seem consistent with the Chancellor's view.

How did this happen? As I explained earlier this year:

So what's going on? As I noted earlier, most of the deficit reduction has come from cutting public sector net investment (spending on schools, roads, hospitals, etc) roughly in half. Pretty much all the rest came from tax increases (note that the investment cuts and tax increases were both, to a significant extent, policies inherited from the previous government). And we can see when it happened - between 2009-10 and 2011-12.

But these sources of deficit reduction stopped in 2011-12, because the government belatedly realised that cutting investment was a major mistake and that the economic imperative was actually to do precisely the opposite (not that there was much investment left to cut); and it stopped putting up taxes overall. So we can see also what's happened since - with the impact of the weak economy on tax receipts reducing revenues, the deficit has been flat and is projected to stay flat.

So the Chancellor’s argument is simply a non sequitur, supported neither by the research evidence nor the data. 

As I wrote here at the turn of the year, we should give the government credit for not digging us further into a hole by trying to stick to its original plans. Fiscal consolidation has slowed, at least for the time being, and as a consequence it is playing a considerably smaller role in driving economic developments than it did two years ago. Meanwhile, the eurozone and global environment is, at least at present, considerably more favourable. Poor policy and bad luck has delayed recovery, relative to NIESR's original forecasts and everyone else's, but has not removed the ability of the UK economy to generate growth. 

So it is perfectly reasonable to ask economic forecasters (including both the OBR and us at NIESR) why we appear so far to have underpredicted the strength of the current upturn. But claiming that this improvement vindicates the earlier damaging mistake the government made by going for front-loaded fiscal consolidation in 2010 just doesn’t make any economic sense. 

George Osborne makes a speech on the economy at a construction site in east London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Jonathan Portes is director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research and former chief economist at the Cabinet Office.

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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.