Why Britain's households got richer - and why they stopped

There are no signs of living standards for families getting any better. Brace yourself.

Before there is any prospect of shaking the economic pessimism that has engulfed the country we need first to alight upon a credible account of how working families will boost their living standards in the years ahead.

At the moment no-one is mapping out this course to a more prosperous future; but more surprising, perhaps, is the fact that we don't really know how it is that households got richer over the recent past. Even though recent history is unlikely to offer a clear guide to the future, it is instructive to understand why low-to-middle income households got richer over the last generation and more -- why it stopped.

Clearly, we do know what happened to headline economic growth over the last forty years, and that this resulted in an unparalleled rising tide of living standards, such that the average British household is twice as prosperous compared to 40 years ago. But we haven't, until now, been able to break down the sources of this rising tide of prosperity at the level of individual households, and tease out how they have changed over time -- for instance, between higher wages (for men and women), more people working, more hours worked, and more generous benefits and tax credits.

Now a landmark report by the IFS for the Resolution Foundation's Commission on Living Standards sets this out in forensic detail. It is a unique compendium of facts and figures about living standards -- and behind the statistics is the tale of economic and social change in late 20th and early 21st century: the rise of women, the relative decline of men and the emergence of tax-credits in low-to-middle income Britain. Any politician or pundit wishing to put the current squeeze on living standards into some meaningful context needs to put it on their Christmas reading-list.

A few findings leap out. Firstly, over the last forty years the great majority (over three quarters) of all the income growth arising from work in low to middle income households came from women. Indeed, women's contribution to total household income more than doubled from just 11 per cent in 1968 to 24 per cent in 2008. Much of this growth is accounted for by higher wages but a large share also comes from big increases in female employment.

Sources of household income growth 1968- 2008/09 - low to middle income households


Over the same period the model of the male breadwinner has taken something of a battering. The contribution of men's work to this same group of households plummeted from 71 per cent of total income to just 40 per cent. As shown in the chart above, this means that income from men's work accounts for only 8 per cent of all the growth in household income in this period, compared to 27 per cent for women. It is well known that male employment plummeted during the 1980s, but male wage growth has also been massively lower for this part of the population -- with any gains here nearly wiped out by falls in employment levels.

Secondly, if we look at the pre-crisis period of economic growth, from 2002 to 2008, a period characterised by steady growth, the evidence is even more striking. Women's employment served to raise household incomes, as did fast-rising tax credits (by an even larger amount); but these gains were almost completely wiped out by losses from male employment income. The net result? The chart below shows that average household income for this group barely rose at all: it went up by a grand total of £143 over 6 years.

Change in income for low to middle income households, 2002/03 - 2008/09, in 2008/09 £s


As with many reports, the conclusions you draw from it will to some degree reflect your starting point. Those favouring redistribution will, of course, point to the enormous importance of tax credits in helping lift family living standards, and be alarmed by the coalition's clear agenda of cutting them back. Whilst those instinctively opposed to using the tax-and-benefit system to mitigate market inequalities will take this report as proof-positive that some of the improvements in the Blair-Brown years were the product of unsustainable state spending.

But wherever you start from, several things jump out of this report as being particularly pressing to the current political debate. Most obviously we clearly have a gender problem -- in fact we have two. Given that income from female work is now so critical for families on low to middle incomes, and typical wages have been flat-lining over recent years, it is a uniquely dumb moment to reduce childcare support which has enabled so many women in low-to-middle income households to combine work and family life. Indeed, declining support for childcare, combined with falling public sector employment (which will affect women more), means that in the short-term female employment rates are likely to fall. Yet we also need to start talking about men. We all know that the UK suffered a strong decline in male employment in the 1980s, but what is less well appreciated is that male employment within the low to middle income group was still falling between 2002 and 2008. We rapidly need to halt this decline.

And -- perhaps this barely needs saying following yesterday's OECD report -- we are going to carry on having an inequality problem too -- indeed it will get worse. This is less a prediction, more a matter of arithmetic. Imagine for a moment that we find ourselves transported into an unlikely egalitarian future, in which pay increases (in per cent) at the top are exactly the same as those at the bottom (bear with me), well, even in this unlikely world, income inequality between households will rise. This is because households further down the income scale receive a significantly smaller portion of their budget from wages than the average household does -- never mind the most affluent. Consequently a given wage increase has a smaller impact on their overall income than it does for those further up the scale.

The only way this dynamic towards ever more polarised household incomes will be countered is either by more aggressively redistributive tax and benefit policies, or a disproportionately large rise in employment levels among this part of the population. And currently we're heading in the wrong direction on both these fronts. Brace yourself.

Gavin Kelly is a former Downing Street adviser to Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.