Waving goodbye to two decades

Nice or nasty, either way the economic future doesn't look great.

Another week, another terrible set of GDP figures, an IMF downgrade of the UK's growth prospects, and a new report showing the squeeze on living standards is set to run and run. The public, along with our politicians, is probably starting to grow immune to some of the shocking headlines about how long it will be before their incomes recover. All attempts at peering into our economic future do, of course, need to be taken with a handful of salt. And if long range economic forecasting is a mug's game, then seeking false precision about the resulting political consequences is truly the pursuit of fools.

Yet for all the uncertainty we can discern the broad contours of different possible paths for living standards over the rest of the decade. None are attractive -- though some are uglier than others. All are likely to challenge the standard assumptions upon which recent politics have been based.

Let's start by tracing the immediate prospects for low to middle income households (broadly those in work in the bottom half of the income distribution). To do this we can adjust the OBR projections for average earnings (reflecting the historic relationship between average and lower earnings), and take account of the coalition's planned cuts to tax credits. The depressing result is that typical disposable household income for this large swathe of Britain is set to fall 8 per cent by 2015 (from just under £22,000 in 2007-08 to just over £20,000).

To get any sense of the range of possibilities for the next parliament the best we can do is draw on different periods from our recent past as alternative guides to the future. So let's consider a "nice growth" and "nasty growth" scenario from 2016 up until 2020. The nice scenario replicates the growth in household income experienced during the first half of Labour's period in office (until 2003) when wages were climbing and the creation of tax credits further boosted low to middle income households. Given the miserable times we are currently living through, referring to this as merely "nice" is something of an understatement. Yet even under this cheery scenario low to middle income households would only regain the position they reached in 2007-08 by 2020. They would have lost more than a decade, but at least they'll be headed in the right direction.

Nice and nasty scenarios for low household income of low to middle income Britain


So much for the supposed good news. Under the "nasty growth" scenario low to middle income households don't share in rising prosperity; their living standards stagnate as they did between 2003 and 2008 -- a period of steady economic growth. Household income limps along at around £20,000 to 2020, around the same as it was in 2001. We've waved goodbye to two decades. And just to repeat: both these scenarios are premised upon the OBR's assumptions for GDP growth until 2016 being realised (and many think that will be a stretch). We haven't dared contemplate a nightmare scenario in which the Eurozone implodes and there is no or very low growth for an extended period.

What might all this mean for how politics shapes up as we approach the next election? The conventional wisdom would hold that the defining question for a living standards election, which 2015 should surely be, is Ronald Reagan's "are you better off" than you were five years ago?

I'm not so sure. As things stand it's not clear in whose interests it will be to make this the issue hovering over the ballot paper. Unless Labour somehow manages to secure a seismic shift in the public's assessment of where blame lies for the crisis and its aftermath it may not like the answer it gets if this becomes the election question. As for the Conservatives, "things could have been even worse" is not exactly a rousing campaign tune for David Cameron to be humming. All of which raises the unlikely possibility that the largest decline in household incomes in living memory might be the dog that no one -- or at least no party leader -- wants to bark come 2015.

Nor is it clear what the electorate's frame of reference will be: their living standards when David Cameron first entered Downing Street or the change in the months immediately prior to the election? A lot could hang on this. For every economic commentator who thinks the scale of our personal debt overhang will mean growth staying miserably low all the way to 2015, there are others who believe that at some point in this parliament, probably late on, things will -- finally -- tick upwards. Eventually, so this argument runs, forecasts that have been too rosy will give way to those that are too gloomy, with strong pre-election growth and sharp falls in unemployment. Veterans of election campaigns will tell you that changes in economic sentiment in the months running in to a campaign are absolutely vital: it's all about finding your mojo for the final sprint. Even the faintest glimmers of economic hope provide the basis for a traditional incumbent campaign theme along the lines of "don't let Labour ruin the hard won recovery".

Yet there is another, counter-intuitive, and altogether more troubling scenario for the coalition: it's just possible that the emergence of a year or so of strong growth prior to the election could even become a source of vulnerability. A stoical public, after years of swallowing the harsh medicine of austerity, may finally refuse to take another spoonful if the long promised return to strong growth fails to lift their own economic prospects.

Only a fool would claim to know which of these scenarios will come good. What's more clear is that for all the endless talk about the new times we are living through, today's politicians are still operating under the old assumption that nice growth is bound to prevail. They still haven't reckoned with the possibility that the world really may have turned nasty.

Gavin Kelly is the chief executive of the Resolution Foundation.

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

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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.