What Osborne didn't mention: wage growth has been revised down

The Chancellor boasted of higher GDP and employment, but the living standards squeeze is set to continue.

For the first time since he became Chancellor, George Osborne arrived for today's Autumn Statement brandishing unambiguously improved economic forecasts. In the triumphalist manner of Gordon Brown, he boasted of "the largest improvement" at any Budget or Autumn Statement for 14 years. Growth is now forecast to be 1.4% this year (up from 0.8%) and 2.4% (up from 1.8%) next year. Unemployment is forecast to be 7.6% this year (down from 7.9%) and 7.1% next year (down from 8%). Borrowing is forecast to be £111bn this year, £9bn lower than expected in March (although still £41bn higher than expected in 2010), and £96bn next year. 

But there was one set of forecasts that Osborne didn't mention: wages. Unlike every other measure, the OBR now expects earnings growth to be weaker, not stronger, than it did at the Budget. The forecast for this year was left unchanged (at 1.5%), while that for next year was revised downwards by 0.2% to 2.6% and that for 2015 by 0.4% to 3.3%. As a result, after already falling by an average of £1,600 since 2010, wages will continue to lag behind inflation in 2014 and will be flat in 2015. 

The danger for Osborne is that even as the UK grows faster than any other G7 country, most families won't feel the benefits, not least in an economy as unequal as Britain's. Labour will still be able to warn that this is a "recovery for the few, not the many" right up until May 2015. 

For that reason, it is far from certain that the UK's economic gains will translate into political gains for the Tories. When Osborne and David Cameron accuse Miliband and Balls of desperately trying to avoid talking about the economy, they should remember that, to most voters, living standards are the economy.

Today, in an attempt to show that he is not oblivious to the squeeze on voters' incomes, the Chancellor offered baubles including a freeze in fuel duty, a reduction in green levies, free school meals for infant pupils and a £1,000 cut in business rates for small firms. But for voters enduring the longest fall in living standards since 1870, that is very small beer.  

George Osborne talks to UK scientists in No. 11 Downing Street on December 4, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win in Manchester Gorton?

Will Labour lose in Manchester Gorton?

The death of Gerald Kaufman will trigger a by-election in his Manchester Gorton seat, which has been Labour-held since 1935.

Coming so soon after the disappointing results in Copeland – where the seat was lost to the Tories – and Stoke – where the party lost vote share – some overly excitable commentators are talking up the possibility of an upset in the Manchester seat.

But Gorton is very different to Stoke-on-Trent and to Copeland. The Labour lead is 56 points, compared to 16.5 points in Stoke-on-Trent and 6.5 points in Copeland. (As I’ve written before and will doubtless write again, it’s much more instructive to talk about vote share rather than vote numbers in British elections. Most of the country tends to vote in the same way even if they vote at different volumes.)

That 47 per cent of the seat's residents come from a non-white background and that the Labour party holds every council seat in the constituency only adds to the party's strong position here. 

But that doesn’t mean that there is no interest to be had in the contest at all. That the seat voted heavily to remain in the European Union – around 65 per cent according to Chris Hanretty’s estimates – will provide a glimmer of hope to the Liberal Democrats that they can finish a strong second, as they did consistently from 1992 to 2010, before slumping to fifth in 2015.

How they do in second place will inform how jittery Labour MPs with smaller majorities and a history of Liberal Democrat activity are about Labour’s embrace of Brexit.

They also have a narrow chance of becoming competitive should Labour’s selection turn acrimonious. The seat has been in special measures since 2004, which means the selection will be run by the party’s national executive committee, though several local candidates are tipped to run, with Afzal Khan,  a local MEP, and Julie Reid, a local councillor, both expected to run for the vacant seats.

It’s highly unlikely but if the selection occurs in a way that irritates the local party or provokes serious local in-fighting, you can just about see how the Liberal Democrats give everyone a surprise. But it’s about as likely as the United States men landing on Mars any time soon – plausible, but far-fetched. 

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