Inflation is worst for the worse off

"Essentials" increased in price by far more than the CPI last year.

Money broker Tullett Prebon has created an index of price inflation in "essentials" in Britain, which it's calling (unsurprisingly) the Tullett Prebon UK Essentials Index. It defines "essential" goods as:

  • Food, alcohol and tobacco
  • Council tax, water charges and home insurance
  • The costs of domestic heating and power, principally gas and electricity
  • Fuel, road tax and vehicle insurance
  • Train, bus and other public transport fares

(Yes, alcohol and tobacco are essentials.) Between them, those components make up 40 per cent of the RPI, with the other sixty per cent being non-essentials.

Defining the difference lets us take a look at how bad inflation is hitting just the act of day-to-day living. Tullett Prebon estimates inflation in essentials was 3.7 per cent over 2012, well above the CPI, which increased by 2.8 per cent. And, since wages have been rising below even CPI, the price of essentials has soared in comparison to income:

Between 2007 and 2012, nominal incomes expanded by 10% whilst the cost of essentials soared by more than 33%, meaning that the average working person would have been 17% worse off if he or she had spent the whole of their income on essentials.

Of course, few people do spend their entire income on essentials. However, with real incomes under pressure, and with the prices of essentials now increasing at annual rates of close to 4%, the proportion of household incomes going into essentials is clearly rising, and is set to continue to do so.

As the chart below makes clear, this is entirely a post-recession phenomenon:

It's been known that inflation is worse for the worse off for quite some time now, but it's largely been a fact bandied around by the far left. The Communist Party of Britain — that's the one which publishes the Morning Star — produced a Working Class Price Index in 2010, which made much the same point. That pegged inflation for the working class (which included a broad mixture of non-essentials as well) at over 10 per cent for some years.

This isn't quite the same point as the one made by those at the intersection of compassionate conservatism and inflation hawkishness, which is that high inflation disproportionately hits the poor. That may or may not be true — I'm inclined to think it does, but not as much as high unemployment and low growth does, and insofar as inflation hawks call for that trade-off they're being disingenuous — but what is true is that whatever the headline rate of inflation is, if you're poor, life is getting more expensive much faster than that indicates.

One final point (I think made originally by Left Outside) is that a closer look at the categories which count as essentials reveals a far greater extent of government control over prices than is normal. Council tax, road tax and almost all public transport fares are set (in aggregate) by the government; a massive proportion of the cost of alcohol, tobacco, fuel and heating and power is similarly driven by taxation.

As a result, standard understanding of inflation goes out the window. There is no intrinsic link between monetary policy and the rate of inflation for "essentials", because the prices aren't set by the market. It's a rare situation where the government could have its cake and eat it; it could implement expansionary monetary policy to boost demand, while at the same time capping, temporarily, rises in those direct regressive taxes and fares to below inflation.

But for that to happen, there first needs to be wider understanding of the problem. That's why the essentials index is an important piece of research, and worth keeping an eye on.

Updated to replace the giant picture of some rice with the chart which was actually supposed to be there.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.