Time to think beyond the economy – is GDP the right target?

Policy should focus on wellbeing, opportunity and sustainability.

This week David Cameron launched the Big Society bank and sparked a new round of debate on whether "money makes the world go round" or "the best things in life are free". The Big Society is seen by some as a political cover story for cuts to public services but the idea behind it questions whether there is more to society than just the bottom line? Whether the pursuit of happiness is about more than money? Whether doing you bit, gives your life its meaning, rather than the job you do or the things your own?

Given Britain’s gloomy economic climate, the worst unemployment since 1995 and further cuts to public spending in the pipeline, our ‘age of austerity’ seems all encompassing. But back in 1968, Robert Kennedy famously questions whether GDP was the right measure of a healthy economy and of a good society:

The Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.

More than forty years on, politicians are still asking those questions.  A new report published by IPPR today report suggests policy should focus directly on wellbeing and range of the opportunities that people have. It concludes that every effort to rethink economic policy should be motivated by a consideration not only of "what works" but also of "to what ends".

Clearly there are reasons why GDP has remained for so long the primary measure of economic success. Governments have long taken the view that by promoting GDP growth they help a majority of the population achieve better lives. Historically a strong correlation existed between GDP, disposable income and employment. This provided greater access to material wealth; more desirable cars, houses, clothes, and the latest household and personal gadgets. But despite the advances brought about by GDP growth, there is a growing consensus among politicians that GDP on its own is no longer sufficient and our wellbeing does not just come from income, but from a wide range of sources.

On the other side of the pond, significant headway in measuring national wellbeing has been made in Canada with the Canadian Index of Wellbeing. It is an attempt to capture the quality of life experienced by Canadians. Here in the UK, the ONS launched a consultation exercise to find out what really matters to people from the people themselves. This found that family, friends, health, financial security, equality and fairness are fundamental in determining wellbeing. These initiatives should be encouraged and continued so we can identify what matters to people and how best we can directly support these areas.

By targeting wellbeing and opportunity we speak to the wider concerns of the population. We ask how people are doing before we ask how the economy doing? We recognise that there is "life beyond the bottom line" and that worthwhile lives extend beyond what we earn and consume. The big question that remains, is how to conclude a political consensus around wellbeing, opportunity and sustainability?

Amna Silim is a Researcher at IPPR

David Cameron launches The Big Society Capital fund at The London Stock Exchange. Photograph: Getty Images.
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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

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