Soaring inflation spells more trouble for Osborne

The UK now has the highest inflation of any EU country except Estonia.

The latest inflation figures are shocking. The Consumer Price Index rose 0.7 per cent last month to 5.2 per cent (the target rate, of course, is 2 per cent), the highest level since September 2008, while the Retail Price Index, the traditional measure of inflation, rose to 5.6 per cent, up from 5.2 per cent in August and the highest figure since June 1991. The UK now has the highest inflation of any EU country except Estonia. And all this before the Bank of England has injected £75bn worth of quantitative easing (QE), with inevitably inflationary consequences. It's nothing compared to the 1970s - when inflation rose above 25 per cent - but it explains why almost everyone is feeling the pinch.

The causes are wearily familiar: the depreciation of sterling, the VAT rise and rising energy prices (voters' number one concern, according to opinion polls). Average gas and electricity bills rose 7.5 per cent between August and September. But over the last year, excluding bonus payments, wages have risen by just 1.8 per cent, meaning millions are suffering an effective pay cut.

So, to quote Lenin, what is to be done? There is a (correct) bipartisan consensus that lack of growth, not inflation, is Britain's biggest problem. Hence George Osborne's support for a second round of QE (described by him in 2009 as "the last resort of desperate governments") and the government's tacit agreement with the Bank of England that interest rates will remain at record lows. A premature rise in the base rate (currently 0.5 per cent) would strangle growth. Similarly, Ed Balls and Ed Miliband continue to believe that sustained monetary stimulus is essential for the health of the economy.

In addition, all sides both hope and expect that inflation will come down next year as temporary factors such as the VAT rise and the surge in oil prices are discounted. Indeed, the Monetary Policy Committee's biggest fear is not inflation but deflation.

But none of this will prevent Labour delivering some potent attack lines. Here's Rachel Reeves, the party's new shadow chief secretary to the Treasury and a former Bank of England economist:

It's now clear we have the worst of all worlds - high inflation, rising unemployment and a stagnant economy since last autumn. When Britain now has the highest inflation of any EU country except Estonia, families and pensioners feeling the squeeze want out of touch Ministers to take some responsibility and take action now ... The Bank of England has been put in an impossible position by George Osborne. It has been left to do all the work to support the economy, while spending cuts and tax rises that go too far and too fast have crushed growth and the VAT rise has fuelled inflation too.

The stark reality for Osborne is that, under his stewardship, the UK now has one of the highest rates of inflation in the EU and one of the lowest rates of growth. As low and middle earners (11 million of whom have seen no rise in their real incomes since 2003) are squeezed by rising prices, falling wages, higher taxes and lower benefits, the pressure will intensify on the Chancellor to offer some relief.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

DebateTech
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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to write a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the MPs behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.