Wanted: a new purpose for British capitalism

How can Britain avoid going down the US path where for the last generation the majority of the gains

If this year's question is "When will growth resume?", next year's will surely be "How do we make sure that growth benefits the great majority of working people?".

For much of the 20th century, that second question would not have been necessary. The link between growth and living standards held strong -- it was the golden thread of the social contract, binding together the shared efforts of labour, capital and government in a win-win deal for all sides.

But today, across many advanced economies, that thread is badly frayed, while in others it has already severed. The US has seen a generation of flat or falling real incomes among the bottom half of earners. From 1970 to 2010 the link between economic growth and typical wages ruptured -- the "great decoupling", as Lane Kenworthy has called it. GDP continued to grow but it didn't trickle down.

In the 37 years from 1973 to 2010, the annual incomes of the bottom 90 per cent of US families rose by only 10 per cent in real terms. Median US household income was $64,000 in 2007. Had it kept pace with growth in GDP, it would have grown to $90,000. As the table below shows, the richest 1 per cent of the population has captured a truly staggering proportion of the gains from all income growth – two-thirds of the total gain during the Bush years.


The result of these extraordinary growth rates is that the richest 1 per cent of American society now receives over 20 per cent of total income, with the richest 10 per cent getting roughly 50 per cent of all income (see below).

Perhaps we can comfort ourselves with the notion that the US is unique? No. In Canada, median earnings have also flatlined for 30 years. In Germany real monthly incomes fell between 2000 and 2009. And in the five years that preceded the 2008-2009 recession, while UK GDP growth averaged above 2 per cent, median wages were near flat at the same time as they carried on steadily rising at the top (see below; sources: ONS, ASHE, Resolution Foundation).


So this can't just be put down to a momentary living standards squeeze arising from the fallout from the recession or the deficit - though that is certainly also taking place. The problem started earlier, will last longer, and runs deeper. It is a mega-trend in some, not all, advanced capitalist economies that towers over other questions of social and economic policy that dominate the daily news.

Marginal interests

In the US, unlike the UK, this issue at least shapes mainstream political debate. It is a theme that Barack Obama took up when confronting the captains of industry last week: "We can't go back to the kind of economy where gains in productivity just didn't translate into rising incomes and opportunity for the middle class." Behind the scenes, Gene Sperling, President Obama's newly appointed director of the US National Economic Council, has invoked the spirit of JFK, calling for a new "rising-tide economics" to underpin a return to an era of shared prosperity.

Fine sentiment. But there are few signs from the US, and even less in the UK of fresh thinking on how to shift the distribution of the gains from growth. The truth is that no one really knows the answer, few politicians are focused on it, and the economics profession has until recently largely ignored it.

Which brings us to the much-talked-of "growth plan" that the coalition is working on for the Budget. What are the prospects of it really tackling the problem of living standards? Bleak – at least if the past is anything to go by. When the call goes out in Whitehall for ideas on growth, the response is typically a half-hearted effort to pull together a package of incremental measures – a tweak in the tax treatment of investment, another review of red tape, a new public investment bank or fund (with few resources), a call for stronger links between universities and regional economies.

All of these are wearily familiar. Some of them may help growth at the margins. None begins to match up to the problem – nor do they directly address the issue of who gains from growth. No one in Whitehall even thinks it's their job to worry about this.

So, in addition to the usual business support measures, what would a "rising tide" economics need to consider if it is to try and ensure that growth feeds through into rising incomes and a more stable recovery?

First, there would need to be a much more ambitious drive on jobs and skills. That means employment creation, including the use of government job guarantees. There is no prospect of steadily rising real wages emerging out of a slack and detoriating jobs market; so, steady progress on the long road back to full employment – which as of today feels like a pipe dream – is a vital precondition.

But, as the pre-recession years vividly demonstrated, high employment on its own won't suffice. We also need a deliberate effort to tilt the balance to help labour secure sustainable wage growth. Once steady employment growth is re-established, this will demand a more aggressive approach to raising the minimum wage more steeply year on year; as well as government action rather than words on expanding the reach of the "living wage". And there has to be a new model of skills policy, jettisoning the old approach of pumping out an ever greater supply of paper qualifications in favour of using sticks and carrots to encourage employers to increase their demand for skilled labour.

How to restart growth

Second, there is a need to be unfashionable. That means focusing on the performance of some of the less eye-catching sectors of the economy – where so many low-to-middle-income earners actually work – rather than just showering attention on fashionable "industries of the future" as politicians of all parties like to term them.

Of course, low-carbon energy, digital and the creative sectors are absolutely vital, and the government should intervene more aggressively to secure their success in the UK. But more important to the immediate lives of much of working Britain are the high-employment, low-productivity, "pedestrian" sectors of our economy which account for roughly 25 per cent of GDP – such as retail, hospitality and personal care – where poverty wages are widespread, opportunities for progression within jobs are limited, and management is often poor.

Third, a "rising-tide" economics would involve stretching the growth agenda beyond the confines of traditional "industrial policy" into future choices on public services. Why so? Because tightly constrained public spending should be prioritised for services such childcare and elderly care that, with proper reform, could play a far greater role supporting more people, especially woman, to enter into and stay in work.

As millions of households have long figured out for themselves, when individual earnings are stagnant then the only way of lifting household living standards (without relying on increasing debt) is through more dual-earner couples, as well as helping people to stay in work for longer as they get older. Indeed, it is an irony that the single most potent pro-growth, pro-living-standards measure that the coalition has introduced to date – the abolition of the default retirement rule, which will enable far more people to continue working as they grow older if they choose to – hasn't been presented in this light.

Finally, there is a pressing need to capitalise on the new, if belated, zeitgeist among the high priests of the global economics profession concerning the toxic consequences of rising inequality. This does not stem from the usual left-leaning economists, but from leading financial gurus – including Raghuram Rajan and Ken Rogoff, both former chief economists of the IMF – who are motivated by the need to secure viable conditions for steady economic growth in a post-crisis world.

Translated into the UK context, this interest in greater economic equality very quickly runs up against the reality of our income-tax system, where the 40p rate already kicks in at a relatively low (and falling) income level and there is no appetite from any quarter for raising the 50p rate on the highest incomes. As a result, all roads point to the need for fresh and fearless thinking on taxing wealth and top-end housing – not least as wealth inequalities far exceed those in income.

As things stand, over the short term, the government will remain on the defensive about the lack of a plausible plan for restarting growth. Eventually – however slowly – growth will bounce back and that hurdle will be cleared. Yet the real economic test – indeed, the wider test for the very legitimacy of the British model of capitalism – is the far higher hurdle that follows. Will the proceeds of growth once again be widely shared, or will we go down the American path to an increasingly divisive future in which the majority of workers receive little or no gain from rising national prosperity?

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation.

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation 

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide