Leader: The wrong kind of economic recovery

Even the most depressed economies eventually recover. The return of growth in the UK, after three years of stagnation under the coalition government, is merely a reflection of this truth. With GDP still at 2.5 per cent below its pre-recession peak, in 2007, the economy has yet to make up the lost output from the crisis. In the US, by contrast, where the Obama administration maintained fiscal stimulus by cutting taxes and increasing infrastructure spending, the economy is now 5.2 per cent larger. But after convincing much of the public that the post-2010 downturn was inevitable, George Osborne has been the beneficiary of low expectations.

According to the Chancellor’s account, the surge in growth is a vindication of his decision to pursue austerity after entering office. This claim is faithfully echoed by a media that loudly endorsed his deficit reduction programme in 2010. Not only does this narrative ignore the tardiness of the recovery – the slowest for more than 100 years – it also obscures the sources of the growth we are now experiencing. It is not austerity but its reverse that explains the upturn.

To the extraordinary monetary stimulus provided by the Bank of England, in the form of quantitative easing and record-low interest rates, have been added large-scale state interventions such as Help to Buy. After imposing damaging policies such as the VAT rise and the dramatic reduction in infrastructure spending in 2010, Mr Osborne has also eased the pace of austerity. Rather than sticking to his original deficit reduction timetable, the Chancellor allowed borrowing to rise and extended his programme from four years to seven. Even under the most optimistic scenario, the deficit is still expected to be at least £100bn this year, £40bn more than forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility in 2010.

When he entered office in 2010, Mr Osborne pledged to rebalance the economy away from its reliance on property and debt-financed consumer spending, cynically fostered by Labour, and towards investment and exports. But growth is again being driven by the former. Exports fell by 2.4 per cent in the most recent quarter, despite the continuing weakness of the pound, while business investment remains 6.3 per cent below its 2012 level. With wage growth (0.8 per cent) still lagging behind inflation (2.2 per cent), the recovery is being built on consumer credit and rising house prices. Like Gordon Brown before him, Mr Osborne has found the attractions of debt-driven growth impossible to resist. If the economy is not to become permanently reliant on ultra-low interest rates, he must act now to promote both public and private investment. Rather than risking the creation of another property bubble through Help to Buy, he should concentrate on increasing the supply and the affordability of housing.

A programme of the kind pursued by Harold Macmillan as housing minister in the early 1950s, when 300,000 homes a year were built, would stimulate growth (for every £100 invested in housebuilding, £350 is generated in return), create employment and reduce welfare spending. As some MPs in his own party have suggested, the Chancellor should also offer incentives to firms to pay the living wage in order to reduce consumers’ reliance on borrowing to maintain their living standards.

At present, GDP is rising but living standards are not. The north-south divide in England is widening, rather than narrowing. Meanwhile, household savings are falling at their fastest rate for 40 years. The economic cycle may finally have turned but the structural conditions for a repeat of the crash remain firmly in place.

Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England. Photo: Getty.

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Burnout Britain

Photo: Getty Images
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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.