Inflation: It's worse than it seems

Low wage growth + High price growth = Misery.

Inflation around the government's target of 2 per cent - or even up at 3-4 per cent as it has been recently - does not sound too bad but people are complaining about making ends meet. Part of that is the squeeze on incomes which are rising more slowly than prices. Yet lurking behind the innocuous-sounding headline rates of change for inflation, and smooth words of reassurance from the Bank of England, is a harsher reality. Several items have more than doubled in price since the Bank was made responsible for inflation and interest rates in 1997, despite the headline measure only increasing by one-third in that period and the annual rate averaging barely 2 per cent.

Overlay from Timetric

In the early 2000s, earnings were rising faster than inflation but the pattern changed in 2007. Earnings growth has slowed dramatically while the rate of price increases has risen. Indeed, from the start of 2008, prices have risen by 15 per cent while average earnings have increased by only 5 per cent. It's no wonder that people are feeling the squeeze. The squeeze probably feels worse as we tend to notice the items which are rising in price strongly! The chart below shows all the top level components of the index - and a considerable variation in the rates of inflation among the different goods and services. Some components have fallen since 1997 - prices are actually lower than 15 years ago - while others have risen by much more than the average. By far the largest riser has been education - a combination of university fees (which rose in 2006), private school and nursery fees, and evening classes.

Overlay from Timetric

The story is more striking at the next level of disaggregation. Since 1997 (our charts have set May 1997=100), transport insurance has more than tripled in price and fuels (we show gas) have more than doubled. But more surprising are the price rises of some run-of-the-mill items such as postal services (up 94 per cent since 1997), petrol (+134 per cent), cigarettes (+137 per cent) and train/air tickets (+113 per cent). As if to prove the point that basics have been hit hard, chocolate, the jam on your bread, and fish and chips are among the largest risers in the food category and have risen by more than double the aggregate rate of inflation (up 36 per cent as measured by the CPI).

UK CPI: High Rising Components 1997-2012 from Timetric

Too sanguine? Bank of England chief Mervyn King (photo: Getty Images)

Lauren Buljubasic is an analyst at Timetric, provider of economic data visualisation and analysis

Photo: Getty
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The future of the left: The path ahead is full of challenges

Be in no doubt: the left faces a struggle for survival.

There are plenty of grounds for pessimism about the left’s prospects and they are well rehearsed.  Across Europe, social democrats are out of power and when they do manage to enter government, it is under the skirts of dominant centre-right parties or at the helm of fragile coalitions. Ageing western societies have become more conservative, immigration has driven a cultural wedge into the cross-class coalitions that once undergirded centre-left voting blocs, and austerity has ushered in a politics of security, not reform. Only those who have borne the brunt of the financial crisis and its aftermath, like the unemployed youth and evicted homeowners of Southern Europe, have swung decisively to the left, joined by relatively protected but angry older middle class liberals of Northern Europe. Even in Latin America, where the left swept the board at the turn of the century, politics is shifting to the right. Bright spots, such as municipal experimentalism in Spanish cities, or energetic liberalism in Canada and Italy, illuminate the gloom. But mostly, darkness is visible.

Is this condition terminal? Inequality, stagnant living standards and the turbulence of global capitalism generate profound political discontent. They give oxygen to progressive protest movements as well as populist reactionaries, as the convulsions in US politics show. But only a facile determinism reads off political progress from economic crisis. There is nothing to guarantee that revulsion at political and economic elites will give birth to a new egalitarianism. The left needs a clearer headed view of the political terrain that it will face in the 2020s.

Demographic change is a given. Advanced democracies like Britain will get older and the weight of older voters in elections will increase, not diminish. The gap in turnout rates between young and old is unlikely to close, tilting politics even further towards the cultural concerns and economic interests of the over fifties. Leadership credentials and economic competence matter for these voters more than abstract appeals to equality. But a generation of young people will also enter middle age in the 2020s having endured the worst of the age of austerity, with lower wages, stymied home ownership aspirations and stunted career progression to show for it. So just as 20th century catch-all parties built cross-class electoral alliances, successful political movements in the coming decades will need to secure inter-generational voting blocs. Stitching these together will foreground the politics of family and focus policy attention on transfers of wealth and opportunity across multiple generations. 

Ageing will also ratchet up fiscal pressures on the state, as costs mount for the NHS, care of the elderly and pensions. But Britain’s tax base has been weakened by low productivity, corporate tax avoidance and expensive personal allowance giveaways. In the 2020s, this crunch will loom large over fiscal policy and force hard choices over priorities. Just as in the 1990s, we can expect public disquiet at the run-down of investment in public services to mount, but this time there won’t be the same spending headroom to respond to it. The political debate currently underway in Scotland about raising income tax is therefore a harbinger of the future for the rest of the UK.

Fiscal constraints will also force the left to take seriously the agenda of economic reform opened up under the ungainly title of “pre-distribution”. Without an account of how to generate and share prosperity more equitably within the market economy, social democracy is purposeless. But it will need a far more robust and plausible political strategy for achieving these ambitions than anything that has been on offer hitherto. Technological change will not usher in a new economy of its own accord, and without the solid base of an organised working class to ground its politics, the left needs to be open to a wide set of alliances with businesses, big and small. Combining economic radicalism with credibility and popular appeal, particularly to voters who still blame it for the financial crisis, is the hardest challenge the left faces, but there is no getting away from it.

On a note of optimism, the left is currently strong in cities, from which it can build out. Diversity is a strength in major urban centres, not a weakness, and powerful city leaders endow progressive politics with governing authority. Cities are the places where new social movements are most active and much of the energy of contemporary politics can be found, even if elections are fought on wider terrain. The task is to combine a propensity to decentralise and devolve with clear national political direction. The same holds with party reform: the mass political parties of the 20th century are dead, but networks can’t fight elections, so combining openness and democratic engagement, with discipline and national purpose, is vital. 

Nick Pearce is the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.