Why Major's call for 5% interest rates is economic madness

A significant rise in rates by 2017 would leave more than a million households spending more than half of their income on debt repayment.

While it's John Major's comments on social mobility that have made headlines today (read my critique of them here), his remarks on interest rates are equally striking. After years of loose monetary policy, with the base rate held at a record low of 0.5% since March 2009, Major called for rates to return sooner rather than later to "normal levels, say three to five per cent" to create a society that treats "the saver as fairly as it treats the debtor".

It's advice as bad as one would expect from the man who presided over rates of 15% in the early 1990s. As research by the Resolution Foundation shows, even under an optimistic scenario of strong and sustained earnings growth, a rise in the base rate to 3.9% by 2017 would leave 1.08 million families in "debt peril", defined as spending more than half of their income on debt repayment. Under a negative scenario of weak and uneven earnings growth, the number at risk would rise to 1.25 million. A more modest rise in rates to 2.9% would leave between 880,000 (positive scenario) and 1.04 million (negative scenario) in debt peril.

No one believes in low rates as a point of principle (and Major is right to highlight how savers, most notably the elderly, have suffered) but after the longest sustained fall in living standards since 1870, the only sensible option remains to keep monetary policy loose. As Matthew Whittaker, senior economist at the Resolution Foundation, has noted: "Even if interest rates stay in line with expectations, we are likely to see a rise in the number of families struggling with heavy levels of repayment over the coming years. But if the squeeze on household incomes continues, Britain could be left in a fragile position, with even moderate additional increases in interest rates leading to a major surge in families with dangerous debt levels – especially among worse-off households."

The coalition's decision to rely so heavily on cuts to public spending and benefits, rather than progressive tax rises, to reduce the deficit means that low-income families are even less well-placed to cope with a rise in rates. The OBR forecasts that average household debt will rise to £58,000 in 2010 to £77,309 by 2015, or from 160% of total income to 175%.

While fixated with reducing government borrowing, Cameron and Osborne appear intensely relaxed about ever-greater levels of household indebtedness. If Major wants someone to blame for the punishingly low rates endured by savers, he should turn his ire on the austerians in Downing Street.

John Major called for interest rates to return to "normal levels, say three to five per cent". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.