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
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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