Getting the measure of a better capitalism

Growth and relative poverty are no longer enough to tell us whether our economy is on the right trac

Today the Institute for Fiscal Studies has launched an Exocet at the Coalition's claims to be a one-nation government taking a lead on poverty reduction. Nearly all measures of poverty are set to rise over the next five to ten years and the Coalition's policies are part of the cause.

But underneath the headlines the IFS analysis serves a less likely purpose. It provides timely grounds for questioning some of the key measures we use to judge progress in our society. In particular, it raises difficult questions about our reliance on a formula that says 'GDP growth plus poverty reduction' is enough.

To understand why, we should start by looking at the IFS account of what is happening to child poverty. Over the short-term relative poverty has fallen (though it will go on to rise sharply, as will absolute poverty). This fall might seem counter-intuitive given the current squeeze on living standards. The explanation nothing to do with a positive impact from the government's welfare policies. It is because typical ('median') household incomes have faced an 'unprecedented collapse' (in the words of the IFS), lowering the bar against which relative poverty is measured. It's not that those at the bottom are doing any better, just that those in the middle are doing worse.

It is for these same definitional reasons that the IFS show it would be a bad thing for relative child poverty if we find ourselves in the lucky - and highly unlikely - position of securing faster earnings growth for those on low-to-middle incomes in future years. The result would be higher median incomes and therefore increased poverty rates. Just as perversely, it would be a good thing for child poverty if future earnings growth went overwhelmingly to the top of society - a depressing if more likely scenario - and so failed to lift median incomes.

There is nothing new about scoring debating points against a relative measure of poverty. It's not just those who disagree with it on the ideological grounds that we shouldn't care about income inequality (wrongly in my view). There are also progressive voices who think there are smarter ways of measuring these things. These concerns have a new purchase in an era when poverty appears to fall simply because the living standards of those in the middle are falling through the floor.

Nor is this the only measure of economic progress that needs probing. Take GDP growth. It used to be the case that if the growth figures were good then we could assume the living standards of the working population could take care of themselves. Now we're not so sure. In the UK growth stopped flowing into personal gain for low-to-middle income households early on in the last decade when wages started to flat-line. For ordinary families growth, it seems, doesn't signify what it used to.

The importance of this goes beyond a technocratic debate about definitions. Governments - left and right - set their course and judge their progress by a few key measures. If these are designed for the nicer world of the 1990s and early 2000s, not the nastier times we now live in, they may be less reliable guides to good policymaking then our leaders like to think. In the past 'growth plus poverty reduction' was thought to be a decent proxy for a better capitalism. Today, the route to a progressive economy requires additional bearings.

There is, of course, scope for endless debate about how to judge what a better capitalism should look like. The ONS is currently investigating a new measure of well-being - an idea with some merit - though one suspects that it was also conceived with better economic times in mind. Surely, however, a wide swath of opinion would concur that a key goal should be ensuring economic growth steadily lifts the incomes of those in the middle, not just the top, at the same time as ensuring the bottom catches up. Higher absolute living standards for the majority of families whilst closing the gap: very hard to achieve in practice, but not, you might think, all that controversial as a 21st century lodestar for government policy.

Indeed, given this goal is in tune with the regularly repeated rhetoric of party leaders, you'd have thought it might be a statement of the obvious - banal even. Yet Whitehall has a complete blind spot in relation to measures of living standards. Within the Treasury and No 10 there will be real anxiety, sometimes near crisis, preceding the announcement of weak growth numbers. DWP will be laser focussed on poverty numbers. In contrast there is entrenched ignorance, bordering on indifference, about the living standards of low-to-middle income households. Before the recession, when families knew their living standards were flat-lining, Whitehall assumed all was well - after all GDP was steadily climbing. Alarm bells weren't ringing. Those seeking to get Departments to focus on these questions were made to feel like they were speaking a foreign language.

Of course, right now you might think such talk is a luxury. We're not in a position to choose the type of growth we want - we'll take any on offer. But over the longer term we need to hold our governments to account for securing growth that leads to a rising tide of prosperity for those at the bottom as well as those in the middle. It would be a helpful start if Whitehall could get the measure of what a better capitalism might look like.

Gavin Kelly is a former adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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