David Cameron and George Osborne speak together during a Q&A session at the construction company Skanska on April 22, 2014 in Rickmansworth. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

UK economy grows by 0.8% - but how many are feeling it?

The uncomfortable truth is that for most people, the recovery hasn't even begun. 

The run of good news for the Tories on the economy has continued with today's GDP figures. Growth was 0.8 per cent in quarter one of this year (and 3.1 per cent year-on-year), the fifth successive increase and the longest period of continuous expansion since the crash. The economy is now finally within touching distance (0.6 per cent) of exceeding its pre-recession peak with the right poised to boast that Britain is "bigger than ever". But before hanging out the bunting, recall that GDP per head is still almost 7 per cent lower than in 2008 and that the US, which avoided many of George Osborne's mistakes, is 6.3 per cent larger. 

The UK is on track to be the fastest-growing economy in the G7 this year and to surpass France as the world's fifth biggest economy. But again, recall that growth of 1.8 per cent is needed each quarter between now and the election to match the level predicted by the OBR in autumn 2010. 

The belated recovery, combined with the sharp fall in unemployment to 6.9 per cent, has given Osborne a much better economic story to tell. The danger for the Tories, however, as some of their MPs privately acknowledge, is that most people still aren't feeling the benefits. Wage growth excluding bonuses remains below inflation (1.4 per cent to 1.7 per cent) and there will be no rise in real incomes for the millions of public sector workers who have had their salary increases capped at 1 per cent and for those most reliant on state benefits. In a country as unequal as Britain, average wages are no guide to how the middle and the bottom are faring. In London last year, bankers' pay grew nearly five times faster than the pay of the typical worker. 

For most, after six years of falling living standards, it will take more than a few months of growth to make up the ground lost since the crisis. In 2015, as the IFS has repeatedly pointed out, real incomes will still be far below their 2010 level (paving the way for Miliband's Reagan moment). Many in the private sector remain stranded in low-paid, part-time jobs (1.42 million people are working part-time because they can't find full-time jobs) that do not provide enough for them to maintain their family's living standards.

Indeed, based on the RPI measure of inflation (which includes housing costs), the OBR forecasts that wages will be flat until 2019; there will be plenty of people who feel no better off in the next decade, let alone in the next year. The price of many essentials, such as housing, food, energy and transport, continues to rise faster than the general rate of inflation. For all of these reasons, Labour strategists believe that the party's "cost-of-living" attack will retain its potency in May 2015. 

The risk for the Tories is that the more they boast about the performance of the macroeconomy, the more voters will demand "Why aren't we feeling it?" If they are to have a chance of winning the election, they will need a far ambitious plan to restore the severed link between the nation's growth and individuals' living standards. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

David Young
Show Hide image

The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide