Why it's unlikely benefits increases will be linked to earnings

Gloomy projections all round.

Following another Newsnight scoop, there must be debate in Westminster about whether the coalition are going to change their approach to uprating benefits - increasing them annually in line with inflation - for people of a working age. Coalition splits have already been predicted and then resolved before the pre-Autumn statement debate has even got underway.

This issue arises because the Coalition are on the hunt for welfare savings and playing around with benefit upratings is always one of the first places HM Treasury will turn to save money.  To start with it’s worth recalling that the Coalition has already changed its uprating policy from RPI (or the derived ROSSI index) to CPI for most working age benefits – generating significant savings, arising from lower living standards for recipients - than would otherwise be the case. So any further change in upratings policy comes on top of this.

A straightforward freeze in all benefits, as has been reported in some places, will of course save significant sums – though significantly less than the £10bn annual figure that George Osborne has said he wants. But it is also been reported that as part of the hunt for savings in the future, perhaps after a two-year freeze, benefits would be uprated in line with earnings.

Now, this is rather odd. According to the OBR, earnings are expected to outpace inflation from the start of 2013, with the gap growing to around 2.5 per cent a year from 2015. Based on these projections, an earnings link would be a very expensive policy indeed.

It may well be that HM Treasury no longer believes these sorts of earnings projections. Indeed a new report out today by leading labour market economists Steve Machin and Paul Gregg provides strong grounds for expecting a very slow recovery in wages. That’s because levels of unemployment are having such a chilling effect on pay – far more so than was the case when we were seeking to recover from previous recessions (this research also helps explain why we saw wage stagnation in the years prior to the recession). Indeed, today’s FT takes a bit of a leap by suggesting that the Treasury may seize on this report to pave the way for a much gloomier outlook for wages which would in turn justify linking benefits to earnings in the future.

My guess is that this won’t happen (although you wouldn’t necessarily bet against a freeze in benefits being followed by a move to a new approach of uprating benefits by the lower of either inflation or earnings). That’s because in order for the Treasury to realise any savings by linking benefits to wages rather than inflation they would have to produce some earnings projections that the OBR would need to verify.

These would have to be radically different from the existing OBR numbers. What’s more, they would need to show that typical real-terms wages – flat since 2003, falling since 2009 – are set to carry on falling throughout the next Parliament. That’s announcing that most working people are going to carry on getting poorer during the so-called recovery. Something tells me George Osborne isn’t going to do that. 

A man walks on pennies. Photo: Getty

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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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