The economy: hurting, yes. Working, maybe - but for whom?

Growth that doesn't fix the squeeze on living standards poses a challenge to all parties.

Ken Clarke, the cabinet minister with responsibility for giving mildly revealing interviews, has given a mildly revealing interview to the Daily Telegraph. The item that has grabbed most headlines is the acknowledgement that the government is unlikely to legislate to create a tax break for married couples this parliament. That is disappointing to the Conservative right but not entirely surprising. Tax cuts are a very precious political commodity; the Lib Dems are opposed to this particular one and would demand something juicy in return. The Tory leadership is happy to do those sorts of deals in theory but is not wedded enough [sorry, no pun intended] to the idea of a marriage allowance to squander coalition negotiating capital on it.

Also interesting is Clarke’s line on the economy:

If we are back to strong growth by the next election, we probably won’t need to campaign. If at the next election, the economy is in strong normal growth, George Osborne will be given the Companion of Honour or something and we will all get safe back.

Clarke adds, of course, that such a scenario is supremely unlikely and that a more plausible campaign for the Tories in 2015 is one that advertises them as having a “safe hand on the tiller.” That, along with dark warnings against prematurely handing responsibility for the economy back to Labour – and especially Ed Balls - is bound to be the outline of the Conservative pitch at the next election.  

The news last Thursday that the economy has formally exited recession has opened up a whole new school of political speculation – how does the return of growth change things? This is peculiar in a way because no-one expected the economy to shrink forever. Some recovery was always in prospect. What matters in economic terms is how robust it is. Some pessimists are forecasting a slump back into negative territory – a “triple dip” – most analysts expect weak growth whose benefits will not be widely felt.

Yet politically, Thursday’s positive number has made a difference. There are two reasons for that.

First, Labour MPs and shadow ministers – as I noted in my column last week – were already fretting about their apparent lack of a “fair weather” strategy. The previous week’s relatively buoyant employment figures provoked an attack of nerves, with some anxious consideration of the prospect that the Tory plan might really be working – or be superficially yet plausibly presentable as working. That is really a subset of anxiety about Ed Balls’s handling of the role of shadow chancellor. Broadly speaking he has called the macro-economics of the past two years right. For that he gets a lot of credit in Labour ranks – and among some non-partisan economists. He forecast a double dip and there was one.

But politically he has failed to stick the blame for that recession firmly on the coalition. Opinion polls show a gradual shift on the question of who is more trusted to run the economy – away from the Tories and towards Labour. But given the predictable mid-term dip experienced by any administration and the empirical fact that George Osborne inherited a growing economy and promptly shrank it, the Conservative ratings on the economy are – from Labour’s point of view – shockingly, depressingly good.

The whispering against Balls in the Labour ranks is that he has gambled too much on being vindicated by economics and has misplayed the politics. No-one wants the opposition to be ghoulishly willing the economy to fail. And if, come 2015, it is growing, no-one will be much impressed by a retrospective and unprovable claim that it might have grown sooner and better had the Tories not cut too far too fast in the early stages of the parliament.

That leads to the second obstacle facing Labour, which is psychological as much as political. It is the problem of cognitive dissonance. This is the phenomenon that leads people to unconsciously ignore or reject evidence that challenges a prejudice, because doing so is less painful than recognising and owning up to a fault. In this case, the Liberal Democrats, the Tory-inclined media and quite a few people who voted Conservative all have a profound emotional investment in Ed Balls having been wrong all along. That need will, in most cases, far outweigh the reasonable argument that – in a purely dispassionate account of the economic evidence – he was right. More generally, swing voters who backed coalition parties will be marginally predisposed to give Osborne some economic benefit of the doubt because they don’t want to think – or be told – that ejecting  Labour was an error and that the problems we now face are, to some extent, their own fault.

All of that means that Labour needs to be relentlessly focused on the future. To be fair, Ed Miliband seems to understand this. A crucial point – and an area of great danger for the Tories – is that a return to growth will not end the squeeze on living standards for people in middle of the income scale and below. This recovery will be unlike the bounce back from past recessions. Real wages and the purchasing power of many voters will still feel as if they are shrinking.

Later this week, the Resolution Foundation - the politically neutral think tank that has done more than any institution in Britain to define and highlight the “squeezed middle”  phenomenon – publishes the final report of its Commission on Living Standards. This is an epic piece of work that has drawn testimony and data from a wider range of expert individuals and institutions over the past 18 months. The report will look at various scenarios that might evolve over the next few years and the policy priorities implied by those outcomes. It will be a big mid-week story and makes, from what I have heard, uncomfortable reading in various ways for all political parties.

One thing we already know from past analysis by Resolution and others, such as the IFS, is that many people who consider themselves middle class and who generally expect a growing economy to make them feel more prosperous will reach the next election feeling discernibly poorer than they were in 2010. The political hazard for the Tories is that, even if they try to avoid triumphalism, they will be addressing the electorate with a message that says, in essence, “it hurt but it’s working” and the public will respond by saying “you say it, but it sure as hell doesn’t feel that way to us.” Or, worse, they will think “working for whom, exactly? You and your rich mates, perhaps, but not for us.”

Understanding that feeling and turning it into support for a different, fairer account of the future under Labour is Ed Miliband’s goal. The question for him and his shadow chancellor is whether or not the pursuit of that target means moving on from the big macro-economic argument of the past two years. It is a painful proposition, especially for Ed Balls. Perhaps he was right all along; perhaps no-one cares.

Good economic news puts the Labour under pressure. Source: Getty

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Industrial Strategy: Ensuring digital skills are included

The opportunities for efficiency, adaptability and growth offered by digital skills have never been so important to British businesses. The New Statesman asked a panel of experts, including Digital Minister Matt Hancock, Tinder Foundation CEO Helen Milner, Tech City CEO Gerard Grech and Google Policy Manager Katie O’Donovan, to pinpoint the weak spots and the opportunities for a smarter digital skills strategy.

British people spend more per capita online than any other country in the developed world. With 82 per cent of adults using the internet on a daily basis and more than 20 per cent of retail sales taking place online, it would appear that most British businesses are digitally capable. A closer look, however, reveals a significant digital skills gap between larger companies and the small businesses that make up 60 per cent of the private sector – comprising a workforce of over 15 million people, with a turnover in excess of £1.6trillion. Of these small enterprises, a third don’t have a website and more than half are unable to sell goods online. So, are digital skills taking priority in the government’s industrial strategy?

Matt Hancock, Minister of State for Digital and Culture, said digital education from an early age will be a cross-party objective for years to come: “We’re making some progress on this, and one of the most exciting things we did in the last parliament was to put coding into the curriculum from age eight. We’ve recognised that there are down-the-track requirements for digital skills, as much as with English and Maths, and we’ve got a huge array of initiatives to corral the enthusiasm for digital and make sure that it is best used.”

Hancock added that participation in the digital economy is important at every level of business and society: “I can group the facts and figures; 23 per cent of people currently lack basic digital skills, and about 90 per cent of new jobs now need some form of them. I think that what we’ve learnt following the Brexit vote is that the need to engage everybody is more demonstrable than ever before. This is a very important part of the Prime Minister’s agenda, and wider digital engagement is a key part of the broader issue to make an economy that works for everyone.” 

It is this wider opportunity to access and education that forms the bedrock of a new partnership between Google and the Tinder Foundation, aiming to deliver digital skills training to those in society who are most in need. Cue the Digital Garage. The project sees community organisations across the country provide skills support to small businesses, sole traders and indviduals, helping them to make the most of their resources.

Katie O’Donovan, Policy Manager at Google, explained: “Google has a longstanding commitment to train 250,000 people across the UK in digital skills. Since launching the Digital Garage in 2015 we’ve provided mentoring and digital skills training in Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle and Glasgow.  But as the UK faces a new chapter we want to ensure, whether you’re a student looking for your first job, a small business looking to attract new customers or a musician looking to promote your music, the right digital skills are freely available in your local community.

Tinder Foundation CEO Helen Milner recognised that a wider proliferation of digital skills would release a surprising amount of value into the economy. “Some of our research showed that every £1 invested in growing people’s basic digital skills put £10 back into the economy. But it’s not enough to save money - you’ve got to show how you can make money out of it as well.”    

The Labour MP for Aberavon, Stephen Kinnock, has seen at first hand the benefits of support for digital skills, and welcomes opportunities for partnership in his constituency. The shift from manufacturing, he accepts, needs direction and following the depletion of his local steel works he views digitisation as “the only way forward.” Kinnock added that exciting projects such as the Swansea bay region or ‘internet coast’ becoming a testbed for 5G could serve to re-energise communities which are in many ways in a state of decline. Kinnock said: “I’m absolutely delighted that we’re going to have pop-up versions of the Digital Garage in Port Talbot.”

CEO for TeenTech Maggie Philbin, meanwhile, stressed that digital education at school level must be taught through the lens of practical application. She warned: “Many young people aren’t greeted by any coherent messaging in school, so they don’t see why they’d need digital skills in the workplace. We’ve got to start getting a better message across and improve the opportunities for actual work experience that harnesses these skills.”

Karen Price, CEO at The Tech Partnership shares this view. For Price, adapting apprenticeships to incorporate digital skills will help to inspire a culture of innovation. She suggested that “if that's part of an apprenticeship that could be polished to use in a business environment, you'd have a digitally capable young person who could probably move that business on in a different way.”

Nick Williams, Consumer Digital Director for Lloyds Banking Group, views improving people’s digital skills as a matter of urgency and brought up research conducted by the company’s new Business Digital Index for 2016 which found that 38 per cent of small businesses and 49 per cent of charities are currently lacking digital maturity. “It’s no longer a matter of choice,” Williams said, “for organisations to survive, we must focus on a digital message.  Technology’s moved on and people just haven’t kept up. We have to show how these new skills can translate to greater productivity. Ability and access are the two variables to address. We are on the brink of going down the route of a digital divide – those who are capable and those who aren’t – and we’ve got to stop that.”

Rachel Neaman, Director of Skills and Partnerships at Doteveryone, was quick to pick up on this point. She warned that any digital training must not simply be for future generations’ benefit, but also be afforded to those already in work. “What are we doing for the people who currently lack these skills? How do we stop people from being left behind?” Neaman called for an “equal emphasis” on updating and upgrading the existing workforce. Julian David, the CEO at Tech UK, was also keen to highlight that digitisation is “an ongoing process” and therefore “retraining” at regular intervals is needed to cope with a continually evolving demand.

While Hancock spoke of a “unit-based standard learning system”, similar to that used in American schools, to help apply digital skills training where it is most appropriate, IPPR North researcher Jack Hunter said there were real opportunities to be grasped in the coming devolution agenda: “The new mayors that are coming in next year to drive the agenda and economic growth are going to be getting a lot more funding around a variety of different skills streams that feed directly into the digital programme.”

The panel agreed that the digital divide will only grow wider if action is not taken. Director of the Action and Research Centre at the RSA Anthony Painter said that society is being split into two camps: “the confident and creative, and those who feel held back.” Painter recommended that the latter group are given a fresh chance at being empowered digitally. He said: “They don’t tend to use the internet for professional development, whereas the others do. We’ve been having a look at this locally by creating a ‘City of Learning’ which combines a digital platform built around open badges which have micro-accreditations for learning; things that if you get someone’s passionate interest and then start feeding into more formal learning opportunities then you wrap around that a sort of city-led campaign which lets them identify with a common cause – we’re a learning city.”

Tech City UK CEO Gerard Grech concurred and went to explore the link between a strong web presence and business expansion or improvement. The problem identified is that many businesses may not realise the extent of their digital capabilities and thus run the risk of missing out. Grech said: “If you ask a window cleaner if they are a digital business, they might say no, but if you ask how they might go about quoting someone, they could find the address on Google Maps or get the Street View. That’s the idea, to show how digital can be used for them.”

Ultimately, the panel concluded, that the enthusiasm to add a digital depth to Britain’s talent pool was validated by its potential advantages. “A lot of the major challenges facing the economy,” Painter summed up, “are actually rooted in skills. Whether it’s the challenges of Brexit or the challenges of broadband, I think if you fix the skills, everything else falls into place.” The panel agreed that any government has a responsibility to champion digital strategy throughout society, regardless of location or economic standing, and equip businesses with the digital skills required to perform at their best.  

The round-table discussion was chaired by Kirsty Styles.

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