The Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney. Photo: Getty
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To avoid squeezed households struggling, we must beware of premature interest rate rises

Households may struggle unnecessarily from premature interest rate rises if we continue to rely on the current key indicator of income growth.

Thursday’s interest rate announcement from the Monetary Policy Committee is unlikely to generate many headlines. “Bank does nothing for 65th month straight” is hardly a circulation-booster, even during silly season. But we can expect plenty of speculation alongside the announcement that the consensus among MPC members on holding rates will have been broken for the first time since the summer of 2011.

We won’t know for certain until the minutes are published in a couple of weeks, but it is surely only a matter of time before such divisions become apparent. At some point rates must rise, but getting the timing and pace of change right will be an extremely difficult task. Differences of opinion are natural. After all, on the one hand the UK economy is expected to be the pace-setter among advanced economies over the course of 2014; yet on the other, average wages continue to fall in real terms.

Making the right call is made both more difficult and more important by the continued presence of a debt overhang built up during the pre-crisis years. This legacy means that, even with rates at an all-time low, almost one-in-five mortgagors say they’re struggling to meet their repayments. Small initial movements in the base rate might not have a material effect on these households, but if the trajectory is such that borrowing costs normalise before incomes do, then the potential for repayment difficulties is significant.

The MPC is of course alive to this danger: Mark Carney has stated that rates won’t rise until “jobs, incomes and spending [are] growing at sustainable rates”. Yet, in relation to the key indicator of income growth, the committee is let down by the statistics it relies on.

Our best measures of what is happening to household incomes are derived from large-scale government studies. Both the Family Resources Survey and the Living Costs and Food Survey provide directly-reported information and allow us to understand patterns across the income distribution – an important distinction given that problem debt is particularly concentrated among those with low and modest incomes. Yet these surveys are annual and take time to report, thereby lacking the timeliness required to inform the MPC’s real-time decision making.

Unfortunately, the timely measure that the Bank instead relies on – Real Household Disposable Income – is not fit for purpose. It doesn’t just measure household income, but universities, charities and trade unions too. And it is deflated using a national accounts measure that has little to do with the actual spending patterns of households. As a result, the chart shows that RHDI per capita has consistently overstated income growth over the past 15 years or so: rising more sharply than the survey data in the pre-crisis years and falling less starkly in the subsequent period.

The cumulative difference in income growth between 1998 and 2013 as measured by the FRS median and the RHDI per capita is almost 9 percentage points. That’s equivalent to around £1,700. In debt terms, that’s the same as the extra annual repayment cost on a £150,000 mortgage following a 1.7 percentage point increase in the interest rate.

(Click on the graph to enlarge)

The difficult path that the MPC must steer means that such differences matter. That’s why, alongside a range of recommendations for how we can better prepare for the interest rate rise when it comes, we’ve called on the Bank to work with the ONS to fix its malfunctioning dashboard.

Debates within the MPC in the coming months will be a welcome sign that at least some aspects of the economy are improving. But those discussions must be informed by data that provides the best sense possible of what is really happening in our economy. Pushing too hard on interest rates as a result of misleading data risks generating headlines of the wrong sort.

Matthew Whittaker is chief economist at the Resolution Foundation

Matthew Whittaker is senior economist at the Resolution Foundation

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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