GDP figures: Osborne has been the beneficiary of low expectations

The economy is still 1.3 per cent smaller than before the recession and the recovery remains the slowest since 1870s.

Solid but far from spectacular. That is probably the fairest description of how the economy performed in the final quarter of last year. The ONS's first estimate suggests that GDP rose by 0.7 per cent, below the 0.8 per cent measured in Q3, but enough to ensure that 2013 was the strongest year for growth since 2007, with output rising by 1.9 per cent. 

After fears of a triple-dip recession less than a year ago, the economy has enjoyed an unexpected bounceback. But it's important to remember that this remains the slowest recovery since the 1870s, with GDP still 1.3 per cent below its pre-recession peak (the US, by contrast, is 5.6 per cent above). To this, the Tories will reply that the UK suffered a bigger crash than any other major country, with GDP falling by 7.2 per cent from peak to trough. But as Larry Summers told George Osborne at Davos last week, "The deeper the valley you are in, the more rapidly you are able to grow."

In 2010, a genuine recovery was underway, with the economy growing 2.4 per cent in the 12 months to Q3 2010, but premature austerity, in the form of the VAT rise and the dramatic cut in infrastructure spending, ensured that growth was snuffed out. To meet the OBR's original 2010 forecasts, the economy would need to grow by 1.6 per cent each quarter between now and the election. But Osborne has been the beneficiary of low expectations. Before the post-2010 downturn, below-trend growth of 1.9 per cent would have been viewed as a dismal failure. 

The broader concern remains, as Vince Cable suggested in his lecture last night, that this is the wrong kind of recovery, one too reliant on debt-led consumption and house price inflation, rather than exports and investment. Of the 0.7 per cent rise in output in Q3, 0.6 per cent came from the services sector, with construction actually declining by 0.3 per cent. And, of course, contrary to what the Tories claimed last week, living standards are still falling, with prices (2 per cent) rising more than twice as fast as wages (0.9 per cent). So long as this remains the case, they will still struggle to rebut Labour's charge that this is a recovery for the few, not the many. 

George Osborne speaks on EU reform in London on January 15, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How a small tax rise exposed the SNP's anti-austerity talk for just that

The SNP refuse to use their extra powers to lessen austerity, says Kezia Dugdale.

"We will demand an alternative to slash and burn austerity."

With those few words, Nicola Sturgeon sought to reassure the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland last year that the SNP were a party opposed to public spending cuts. We all remember the general election TV debates, where the First Minister built her celebrity as the leader of the anti-austerity cause.

Last week, though, she was found out. When faced with the choice between using the powers of the Scottish Parliament to invest in the future or imposing cuts to our schools, Nicola Sturgeon chose cuts. Incredible as it sounds the SNP stood shoulder to shoulder with the Tories to vote for hundreds of millions of pounds worth of cuts to schools and other vital public services, rather than asking people to pay a little bit more to invest. That's not the choice of an anti-austerity pin-up. It's a sell-out.

People living outside of Scotland may not be fully aware of the significant shift that has taken place in politics north of the border in the last week. The days of grievance and blaming someone else for decisions made in Scotland appear to be coming to an end.

The SNP's budget is currently making its way through the Scottish Parliament. It will impose hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts to local public services - including our schools. We don't know what cuts the SNP are planning for future years because they are only presenting a one year budget to get them through the election, but we know from the experts that the biggest cuts are likely to come in 2017/18 and 2018/19. For unprotected budgets like education that could mean cuts of 16 per cent.

It doesn't have to be this way, though. The Scottish Parliament has the power to stop these cuts, if only we have the political will to act. Last week I did just that.

I set out a plan, using the new powers we have today, to set a Scottish rate of income tax 1p higher than that set by George Osborne. This would raise an extra half a billion pounds, giving us the chance to stop the cuts to education and other services. Labour would protect education funding in real terms over the next five years in Scotland. Faced with the choice of asking people to pay a little bit more to invest or carrying on with the SNP's cuts, the choice was pretty simple for me - I won't support cuts to our nation’s future prosperity.

Being told by commentators across the political spectrum that my plan is bold should normally set alarm bells ringing. Bold is usually code for saying something unpopular. In reality, it's pretty simple - how can I say I am against cuts but refuse to use the powers we have to stop them?

Experts - including Professors David Bell and David Eiser of the University of Stirling; the Resolution Foundation; and IPPR Scotland - have said our plan is fair because the wealthiest few would pay the most. Trade unions have backed our proposal, because they recognise the damage hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts will do to our schools and the jobs it will cost.

Council leaders have said our plan to pay £100 cashback to low income taxpayers - including pensioners - to ensure they benefit from this plan is workable.

The silliest of all the SNP's objections is that they won't back our plan because the poorest shouldn't have to pay the price of Tory austerity. The idea that imposing hundreds of millions of pounds of spending cuts on our schools and public services won't make the poorest pay is risible. It's not just the poorest who will lose out from cuts to education. Every single family and business in Scotland would benefit from having a world class education system that gives our young the skills they need to make their way in the world.

The next time we hear Nicola Sturgeon talk up her anti-austerity credentials, people should remember how she did nothing when she had the chance to end austerity. Until now it may have been acceptable to say you are opposed to spending cuts but doing nothing to stop them. Those days are rapidly coming to a close. It makes for the most important, and most interesting, election we’ve had in Scotland.

Kezia Dugdale is leader of Scottish Labour.