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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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