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 Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: How should Labour respond?

The government always gets a boost out of big setpieces. But elections are won over months not days. 

Three days in the political calendar are utterly frustrating for Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition – the Queen’s Speech, the Budget and the Autumn Statement. No matter how unpopular the government is – and however good you are as an opposition - this day is theirs. The government will dominate the headlines. And played well they will carry the preceding with pre-briefed good news too. You just have to accept that, but without giving in or giving up.

It is a cliche that politics is a marathon not a sprint, but like most cliches that observation is founded in truth. So, how best to respond on the days you can’t win? Go to the fundamentals. And do the thing that oddly is far too little done in responses to budgets or autumn statements – follow the money.

No choices in politics are perfect - they are always trade offs. The art is in balancing compromises not abolishing them. The politics and the values are expressed in the choices that you make in prioritising. This is particularly true in budgets where resources are allocated across geographies - between towns, cities and regions, across time - short term or long term, and across the generations - between young and old. To govern is to choose. And the choices reveal. They show the kind of country the government want to create - and that should be the starting point for the opposition. What kind of Britain will we be in five, ten, fifteen years as these decisions have their ultimate, cumulative impact?

Well we know, we are already living in the early days of it. The Conservative government is creating a country in which there are wealthy pensioners living in large homes they won, while young people who are burdened with debts cannot afford to buy a home. One in which health spending is protected - albeit to a level a third below that of France or Germany – while social care, in an ageing society, is becoming residualised. One where under-regulated private landlords have to fill the gap in the rented market caused by the destruction of the social housing sector.

But description, though, is not sufficient. It is only the foundation of a critique - one that will succeed only if it describes not only the Britain the Tories are building but also the better one that Labour would deliver. Not prosaically in the form of a Labour programme, but inspirationally as the Labour promise.

All criticism of the government – big and little – has to return to this foundational narrative. It should connect everything. And it is on this story that you can anchor an effective response to George Osborne. Whatever the sparklers on the day or the details in the accompanying budgetary documentation, the trajectory is set. The government know where they are going. So do informed commentators. A smart opposition should too. The only people in the dark are the voters. They feel a pinch point here, a cut there, an unease and unfairness everywhere – but they can’t sum it up in words. That is the job of the party that wants to form a government – describing in crisp, consistent and understandable terms what is happening.

There are two traps on the day. The first is narrowcasting - telling the story that pleases you and your closest supporters. In that one the buzzwords are "privatisation" and "austerity". It is the opposite of persuasion aimed, as it is, at insiders. The second is to be dazzled by the big announcements of the day. Labour has fallen down here badly recently. It was obvious on Budget Day that a rise in the minimum wage could not compensate for £12bn of tax credit cuts. The IFS and the Resolution Foundation knew that. So did any adult who could do arithmetic and understood the distributional impact of the National Minimum Wage. It could and should have been Labour that led the charge, but frontbenchers and backbenchers alike were transfixed by the apparent appropriation of the Living Wage. A spot of cynicism always comes in handy. In politics as in life, if something seems to be too good to be true then … it is too good to be true.

The devil may be in the detail, but the error is in the principle – that can be nailed on the day. Not defeated or discredited immediately, but the seeds planted.  

And, if in doubt, take the government at their word. There is no fiercer metric against which to measure the Tories than their own rhetoric. How can the party of working people cut the incomes of those who have done the right thing? How can the party who promised to protect the health service deliver a decade of the lowest ever increases in spending? How can the party of home ownership banish young people to renting? The power in holding a government to account is one wielded forensically and eloquently for it is in the gap between rhetoric and reality that ordinary people’s lives fall.

The key fact for an opposition is that it can afford to lose the day if it is able to win the argument. That is Labour’s task.