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Budget 2017: Philip Hammond could not disguise Britain’s dismal economic outlook

For the first time in modern history, British economic growth is predicted to fall below 2 per cent in every forecast year. 

The "new sick man of Europe" was how I described the UK in my recent New Statesman cover piece. Philip Hammond's second Budget confirmed Britain's undesirable status. The growth figures that the Chancellor revealed at the outset of his speech were stunningly poor.

GDP growth this year will be 1.5 per cent before falling to 1.4 per cent in 2018, 1.3 per cent in 2019 and 2020, and eventually rising to 1.5 per cent in 2021 and 1.6 per cent in 2022. For the first time in modern history, growth is expected to be below 2 per cent in every forecast year. (Meanwhile, GDP per capita will grow by just 0.9 per cent in 2017, then 0.8 per cent, 0.7 per cent, 0.7 per cent, 0.9 per cent and 1.0 per cent.)

The dismal figures reflect, above all, the UK's terrible productivity performance. But Brexit, which has deterred investment and squeezed wages, has only worsened the outlook. Add to this the public spending cuts imposed by the Conservatives every year since 2010, and it is little surprise that the UK is now the slowest-growing major EU economy. 

Hammond boasted that the national debt would finally fall next year (albeit from 86.5 per cent of GDP to 86.4 per cent) and that borowing would fall in every year. But let us recall that the Conservatives pledged to eliminate the deficit altogether by 2015. Hammond was forced to admit that borrowing would still be £25.6bn in 2022-23, with no surplus in sight (the OBR later revealed that, on current trends, one would be achieved in 2031). 

After his disastrous first Budget, which forced one of the swiftest U-turns in history (over a National Insurance increase on the self-employed), a nervy Hammond played it safe. Mindful that his Brexiteer enemies would pounce on any mistake, the Chancellor sought to appease them by promising a further £3bn for "Brexit preparations".

Indeed, in a reflection of the government's weakness, this was that rarest thing: a post-election giveaway Budget (from a passionate "fiscal conservative"). Hammond heeded Tory backbenchers by again freezing fuel duty, announcing £1.5bn more for Universal Credit and promising £44bn of public funding, loans and guarantees for housing. And, at the close of his address, this most technocratic of chancellors produced a political treat: the abolition of stamp duty on all first-time buyer purchases up to £300,000 (though in an excoriating assessment, the OBR warned that the measure would actually inflate average prices for first-time buyers and enable just 3,500 new purchases). 

There were no obvious land mines and Hammond will be satisfied if, unlike its two predecessors, this Budget does not disintegrate within a week. Owing to the weakness of Theresa May, who intended to sack him, Hammond can be confident of surviving another year in No.11. But though his political outlook has improved, nothing could disguise Britain's parlous economic future. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Labour’s renationalisation plans look nothing like the 1970s

The Corbynistas are examining models such as Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and John Lewis. 

A community energy company in Nottingham, a credit union in Oldham and, yes, Britain's most popular purveyor of wine coolers. No, this is not another diatribe about about consumer rip-offs. Quite the opposite – this esoteric range of innovative companies represent just a few of those which have come to the attention of the Labour leadership as they plot how to turn the abstract of one of their most popular ideas into a living, neo-liberal-shattering reality.

I am talking about nationalisation – or, more broadly, public ownership, which was the subject of a special conference this month staged by a Labour Party which has pledged to take back control of energy, water, rail and mail.

The form of nationalisation being talked about today at the top of the Labour Party looks very different to the model of state-owned and state-run services that existed in the 1970s, and the accompanying memories of delayed trains, leaves on the line and British rail fruitcake that was as hard as stone.

In John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn’s conference on "alternative models of ownership", the three firms mentioned were Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and, of course, John Lewis. Each represents a different model of public ownership – as, of course, does the straightforward takeover of the East Coast rail line by the Labour government when National Express handed back the franchise in 2009.

Robin Hood is the first not-for-profit energy company set up a by a local authority in 70 years. It was created by Nottingham city council and counts Corbyn himself among its customers. It embodies the "municipal socialism" which innovative local politicians are delivering in an age of austerity and its tariffs delivers annual bills of £1,000 or slightly less for a typical household.

Credit unions share many of the values of community companies, even though they operate in a different manner, and are owned entirely by their customers, who are all members. The credit union model has been championed by Labour MPs for decades. 

Since the financial crisis, credit unions have worked with local authorities, and their supporters see them as ethical alternatives to the scourge of payday loans. The Oldham credit union, highlighted by McDonnell in a speech to councillors in 2016, offers loans from £50 upwards, no set-up costs and typically charges interest of around £75 on a £250 loan repaid over 18 months.

Credit unions have been transformed from what was once seen as a "poor man's bank" to serious and tech-savvy lenders where profits are still returned to customers as dividends.

Then there is John Lewis. The "never-knowingly undersold" department store is owned by its 84,000 staff, or "partners". The Tories have long cooed over its pledge to be a "successful business powered by its people and principles" while Labour approves of its policy of doling out bonuses to ordinary staff, rather than just those at the top. Last year John Lewis awarded a partnership bonus of £89.4m to its staff, which trade website Employee Benefits judged as worth more than three weeks' pay per person (although still less than previous top-ups).

To those of us on the left, it is a painful irony that when John Lewis finally made an entry into politics himself – in the shape of former managing director Andy Street – it was to seize the Birmingham mayoralty ahead of Labour's Sion Simon last year. (John Lewis the company remains apolitical.)

Another model attracting interest is Transport for London, currently controlled by Labour mayor Sadiq Khan. TfL may be a unique structure, but nevertheless trains feature heavily in the thinking of shadow ministers, whether Corbynista or soft left. They know that rail represents their best chance of quick nationalisation with public support, and have begun to spell out how it could be delivered.

Yes, the rhetoric is blunt, promising to take back control of our lines, but the plan is far more gradual. Rather than risk the cost and litigation of passing a law to cancel existing franchises, Labour would ask the Department for Transport to simply bring routes back in-house as each of the private sector deals expires over the next decade.

If Corbyn were to be a single-term prime minister, then a public-owned rail system would be one of the legacies he craves.

His scathing verdict on the health of privatised industries is well known but this month he put the case for the opposite when he addressed the Conference on Alternative Models of Ownership. Profits extracted from public services have been used to "line the pockets of shareholders" he declared. Services are better run when they are controlled by customers and workers, he added. "It is those people not share price speculators who are the real experts."

It is telling, however, that Labour's radical election manifesto did not mention nationalisation once. The phrase "public ownership" is used 10 times though. Perhaps it is a sign that while the leadership may have dumped New Labour "spin", it is not averse to softening its rhetoric when necessary.

So don't look to the past when considering what nationalisation and taking back control of public services might mean if Corbyn made it to Downing Street. The economic models of the 1970s are no more likely to make a comeback then the culinary trends for Blue Nun and creme brûlée.

Instead, if you want to know what public ownership might look like, then cast your gaze to Nottingham, Oldham and dozens more community companies around our country.

Peter Edwards was press secretary to a shadow chancellor, editor of LabourList and a parliamentary candidate in 2015 and 2017.