The Tories' claim that living standards have risen is nonsense on stilts

The claim that almost all earners are better off entirely ignores the cuts to in-work and child benefits. Trying to fix the figures won't work.

For all the talk of recovery this week, the unpalatable truth remains that most people are still getting poorer. In the last quarter, average weekly earnings rose by just 0.9 per cent, less than half the rate of inflation (2 per cent). As long as the wage squeeze continues, the Tories will struggle to rebut Ed Miliband's warnings of a "cost of living crisis" - and it could cost them the election. While the Conservatives have established a comfortable lead on who would best manage the economy, they continue to trail Labour on who would do most to improve family incomes (the same trend seen during Obama vs. Romney). 

Aware of this, the Tories have resorted to statistical chicanery that would make even Iain Duncan Smith blush. In an article in today's Times, George Osborne's protégée Matthew Hancock, the skills minister, claims that the "crisis" spoken of by Miliband is a mirage. He writes: "The story is said to go like this: yes, there are a record number of jobs but the rich are getting richer and incomes are falling for everyone else. Right? In fact, wrong."

While the ONS's recent annual survey of earnings (for April 2012 to April 2013) shows that median wages (2.1 per cent) rose slower than inflation (2.4 per cent) for the fifth year running, Hancock claims that the increase in the income tax personal allowance means that almost everyone is better off. He writes:

New facts on take-home pay — the pound in your pocket — are stark. Last year take-home pay grew faster than inflation for every group of earners except the top 10 per cent.

For those in the middle, squeezed by the great recession, take home pay rose by 4 percent. The top tenth were the only group who saw their take home pay grow by less than prices. So the bottom 90 per cent of earners saw the wages they took home rise faster than consumer inflation last year.

He adds: "[T]he monthly average earnings figures measure income before tax and, thanks to our tax cuts, low and middle-income earners are paying much less of it. Last year we cut the tax paid by a typical taxpayer by £320. By this April most people will be paying £705 less in income tax than before the election. Those on the minimum wage will have seen their income tax bill cut by almost two thirds."

Were it true that living standards are rising for most people, the Tories would have a better story to tell on the economy. Unfortunately for them, it's not. First, the data used by Hancock takes no account of the cuts to in-work and family benefits introduced by the coalition, such as the real-terms cut in child benefit, the uprating of benefits in line with CPI inflation rather than RPI, and the cuts to tax credits (other major cuts such as the bedroom tax, the benefit cap, and the 10 per cent cut in council tax support were introduced after April 2013). The IFS has consistently shown that almost all families are worse off (see table below) once all tax and benefit changes are taken into account. But the Tories, for entirely political reasons, won't mention this.

The other main problem with the statistics is that they exclude the UK's 4.36m self-employed workers, many of whom have suffered disproportionate falls in their income, and those who don't earn enough to pay National Insurance (the source of the ONS data), both of which combine to create a more flattering picture. 

In an attempt to present austerity as progressive, Hancock notes that his figures of choice show that disposable income did not rise for the top 10 per cent. But this was before the government cut the top rate of tax from 50p to 45p in April 2013, handing an average tax cut of £107,500 to the UK's 8,000 income millionaires. The irony is that the one month since 2010 when average earnings rose faster than prices was April 2013 (which the figures used by the Tories conveniently include), when high earners collected the bonuses they deferred in order to benefit from the reduction in the top rate. 

One almost has to admire the Tories' chutzpah; is trying to convince voters who are worse off (and are all too aware of that fact) that they're actually better off really smart politics? On 5 Live this morning, Robert Halfon, the blue collar moderniser, who has pushed harder than any other Tory for an increase in the minimum wage, tellingly chose not to adopt this tack. 

Rather than trying to fix the figures to justify their policies, the Tories would be wise to fix their policies to change the figures. 

David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street on January 22, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How the Lib Dems learned to love all-women shortlists

Yes, the sitting Lib Dem MPs are mostly white, middle-aged middle class men. But the party's not taking any chances. 

I can’t tell you who’ll be the Lib Dem candidate in Southport on 8 June, but I do know one thing about them. As they’re replacing a sitting Lib Dem (John Pugh is retiring) - they’ll be female.

The same is true in many of our top 20 target seats, including places like Lewes (Kelly-Marie Blundell), Yeovil (Daisy Benson), Thornbury and Yate (Clare Young), and Sutton and Cheam (Amna Ahmad). There was air punching in Lib Dem offices all over the country on Tuesday when it was announced Jo Swinson was standing again in East Dunbartonshire.

And while every current Lib Dem constituency MP will get showered with love and attention in the campaign, one will get rather more attention than most - it’s no coincidence that Tim Farron’s first stop of the campaign was in Richmond Park, standing side by side with Sarah Olney.

How so?

Because the party membership took a long look at itself after the 2015 election - and a rather longer look at the eight white, middle-aged middle class men (sorry chaps) who now formed the Parliamentary party and said - "we’ve really got to sort this out".

And so after decades of prevarication, we put a policy in place to deliberately increase the diversity of candidates.

Quietly, over the last two years, the Liberal Democrats have been putting candidates into place in key target constituencies . There were more than 300 in total before this week’s general election call, and many of them have been there for a year or more. And they’ve been selected under new procedures adopted at Lib Dem Spring Conference in 2016, designed to deliberately promote the diversity of candidates in winnable seats

This includes mandating all-women shortlists when selecting candidates who are replacing sitting MPs, similar rules in our strongest electoral regions. In our top 10 per cent of constituencies, there is a requirement that at least two candidates are shortlisted from underrepresented groups on every list. We became the first party to reserve spaces on the shortlists of winnable seats for underrepresented candidates including women, BAME, LGBT+ and disabled candidates

It’s not going to be perfect - the hugely welcome return of Lib Dem grandees like Vince Cable, Ed Davey and Julian Huppert to their old stomping grounds will strengthen the party but not our gender imbalance. But excluding those former MPs coming back to the fray, every top 20 target constituency bar one has to date selected a female candidate.

Equality (together with liberty and community) is one of the three key values framed in the preamble to the Lib Dem constitution. It’s a relief that after this election, the Liberal Democratic party in the Commons will reflect that aspiration rather better than it has done in the past.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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