George Osborne stands behind the bar during a visit to officially re-open The Red Lion pub following a major refurbishment in Westminster on February 25, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images
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How big is Osborne's black hole? The problem is we don't know

The level of austerity required varies hugely depending on how much growth is thought possible.

Today's FT story on George Osborne's "£20bn black hole" might appear puzzling at first. With the British economy growing faster than that of any other major western country (albeit after three years of stagnation), shouldn't the public finances be getting better, not worse? On one level they are: borrowing for 2013-14  is currently £4bn lower than last year. But the problem for the Chancellor is that the models used by the Office for Budget Responsibility (the budgetary watchdog he founded in 2010), which the FT has replicated, deem this improvement to be almost entirely cyclical (temporary), rather than structural (permanent). While the body's short-term forecasts have improved, its long-term forecasts have worsened. Osborne's cuts have permanently dented the economy's growth potential. The result is that the structural deficit (the part of the deficit that exists regardless of the level of growth) is now estimated to be even bigger than first thought, and that means even more austerity will be needed to balance the books. 

The problem with all of these forecasts is that they hinge on one highly uncertain judgement: the size of the output gap. The output gap (or the level of "spare capacity") is the difference between current and potential growth. If the gap is thought to be large, then a significant chunk of the deficit can be eliminated over time through growth, rather than spending cuts and tax rises. But if it is thought to be small (the OBR puts it at 1.8 per cent), then even greater austerity is needed. At present, the OBR estimates that the structural deficit will be £85bn this year, while the total deficit will be £111bn (meaning £26bn of austerity is avoided). But the FT''s updated forecasts suggest that the difference between the two might be smaller than thought, hence the warning of a "£20bn black hole". 

The complication for Osborne (and Ed Balls, who has pledged to eliminate the current deficit by the end of the next parliament) is that economists are hugely divided over the potential for higher growth (the Independent's Ben Chu has a useful graph of their differing forecasts here). The Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee is even more pessimistic than the OBR; it estimates that the output gap is just 1-1.5 per cent, meaning that austerity of £91-97bn will be needed to Osborne to meet his target of running a budget surplus by 2018-19. But the market, on average, is more optimistic than both; it assumes an output gap of 2.7 per cent, meaning the level of austerity required falls to £77bn. Others are even more optimistic. The National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR) puts the output gap at 4.3 per cent, with £60bn of austerity required, at least £30bn less than assumed by the Bank of England. 

The danger highlighted by some economists is that an overly pessimistic estimate could lead to austerity being applied more severely than necessary. As Andrew Goodwin, senior economist at Oxford Economics, has said: "Oxford Economics analysis suggests that the economy has a significantly larger amount of spare capacity than the OBR estimates which, in turn, suggests that the medicine of austerity could end up being applied in a dose higher than the patient actually needs."  This calculation matters as much for Labour as it does for the Tories. The level of growth thought possible will determine the amount the party can spend on its priorities - housing, childcare, employment, skills, health and social care - while meeting its tough deficit reduction targets. If it follows Osborne and uses the OBR's pessimistic forecasts, it could end up with a minimalist manifesto it later regrets. 

Wonkish it might be, but the output gap is probably the most important number in British politics. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Could Labour lose the Oldham by-election?

Sources warn defeat is not unthinkable but the party's ground campaign believe they will hold on. 

As shadow cabinet members argue in public over Labour's position on Syria and John McDonnell defends his Mao moment, it has been easy to forget that the party next week faces its first election test since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. On paper, Oldham West and Royton should be a straightforward win. Michael Meacher, whose death last month triggered the by-election, held the seat with a majority of 14,738 just seven months ago. The party opted for an early pre-Christmas poll, giving second-placed Ukip less time to gain momentum, and selected the respected Oldham council leader Jim McMahon as its candidate. 

But in recent weeks Labour sources have become ever more anxious. Shadow cabinet members returning from campaigning report that Corbyn has gone down "very badly" with voters, with his original comments on shoot-to-kill particularly toxic. Most MPs expect the party's majority to lie within the 1,000-2,000 range. But one insider told me that the party's majority would likely fall into the hundreds ("I'd be thrilled with 2,000") and warned that defeat was far from unthinkable. The fear is that low turnout and defections to Ukip could allow the Farageists to sneak a win. MPs are further troubled by the likelihood that the contest will take place on the same day as the Syria vote (Thursday), which will badly divide Labour. 

The party's ground campaign, however, "aren't in panic mode", I'm told, with data showing them on course to hold the seat with a sharply reduced majority. As Tim noted in his recent report from the seat, unlike Heywood and Middleton, where Ukip finished just 617 votes behind Labour in a 2014 by-election, Oldham has a significant Asian population (accounting for 26.5 per cent of the total), which is largely hostile to Ukip and likely to remain loyal to Labour. 

Expectations are now so low that a win alone will be celebrated. But expect Corbyn's opponents to point out that working class Ukip voters were among the groups the Labour leader was supposed to attract. They are likely to credit McMahon with the victory and argue that the party held the seat in spite of Corbyn, rather than because of him. Ukip have sought to turn the contest into a referendum on the Labour leader's patriotism but McMahon replied: "My grandfather served in the army, my father and my partner’s fathers were in the Territorial Army. I raised money to restore my local cenotaph. On 18 December I will be going with pride to London to collect my OBE from the Queen and bring it back to Oldham as a local boy done good. If they want to pick a fight on patriotism, bring it on."  "If we had any other candidate we'd have been in enormous trouble," one shadow minister concluded. 

Of Corbyn, who cancelled a visit to the seat today, one source said: "I don't think Jeremy himself spends any time thinking about it, he doesn't think that electoral outcomes at this stage touch him somehow."  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.