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 Downing Street adviser to Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.