How Osborne disguised the truth about living standards

The Chancellor boasts in his Times piece that disposable incomes have risen but in the first quarter of this year they fell at the fastest rate since 1987.

With the return of the economy to something close to normal levels of output, attention has quickly shifted to the nature of the recovery. Is it balanced or unbalanced growth? Is it a recovery for the few or one for the many?

In his response to the GDP figures yesterday, Ed Balls emphasised that while the economy is growing (albeit after three years of stagnation), most people's real incomes are still shrinking. He said: "Families on middle and low incomes are still not seeing any recovery in their living standards. While millionaires have been given a huge tax cut, for everyone else life is getting harder with prices still rising much faster than wages."

But in a column in today's Times, George Osborne declares that the government is ensuring that everyone, including low-earners, benefits from the recovery, noting that "inequality is at its lowest for 25 years and disposable incomes grew by 1.4 per cent above inflation last year despite the squeeze, the fastest for three years". 

So who's right? The figures cited by Osborne are correct but they offer a highly partial picture. First, based on the most common measure - inflation - most people's pay is still falling, as it has been since the crash. In the year to May 2013, total earnings rose by just 1.7%, more than two percentage points below CPI inflation (2.9%). Since the election, average pay has fallen by £1,350 a year in real terms, with most now earning no more than they were in 2003. And the situation is unlikely to improve anytime soon. Wages aren't expected to outstrip inflation until 2015 at the earliest and earnings for low and middle income families won't reach pre-recession levels until 2023

But even if we accept Osborne's metric of choice - real household disposable income - the picture isn't as rosy as the Chancellor implies. Household incomes did increase by 1.4% in 2012 but they went on to fall by 1.7% in the first quarter of 2013, the largest quarterly drop since 1987. 

As for inequality, Osborne won't be able to masquerade as an egalitarian for long. While inequality has fallen to its lowest level since 1986 (owing to a combination of lower wages for middle and high income earners, the automatic stabilisers and the rise in the personal tax allowance), it is expected to rise from now on as the welfare cuts bite. In particular, Osborne's decision to cap benefit increases at 1 per cent for at least three years (an unprecedented real-terms cut) means the poorest will see a steep fall in their incomes. The IFS expects inequality "to rise again from 2011–12, almost (but not quite) reaching its pre-recession level by 2015–16."

The Chancellor might want to have a good story to tell about living standards and inequality, but he'll need to change his policies first. 

George Osborne delivers his Mansion House speech on June 19, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA