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

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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

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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 adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change