Archive for the 'public policy' Category

Politics: Local power can make a difference to quality of life

Policy Press author Robin Hambleton, whose book Leading the Inclusive City: Place-based innovation for a bounded planet publishes next month, argues that it is time to sweep away the obsessive centralisation that is holding Britain back

HambletonThe very high level of participation in the Scottish Referendum on 18 September is good news for all those who care about the quality of democracy in the UK.

The turnout, at 84.6%, was a massive improvement on the 65.1% who voted in the last UK General Election back in May 2010. Indeed, the citizens of Scotland have forced a re-write of the record books. They delivered the highest turnout in any election held in the UK since 1918, which was the first year all adults enjoyed the right to vote.

Lessons learned

The first, and most important, lesson to draw from the lively political debates in Scotland is that place-based power matters. The referendum shows that, when citizens are granted significant decision-making authority, power to take decisions that really matter, they are more than ready to step up to the plate.

The events of last month provide a refreshing contrast to the long-established pattern of declining voter engagement in national and local government elections across the UK.

Westminster and Whitehall must shoulder much of the blame for the deterioration in the civic culture of Britain during the last thirty years. This is because successive governments have pursued a policy of, what I have called elsewhere, ‘centralisation on steroids’.

Over the years the ‘we know best’ London-centric political class, aided and abetted by our over-centralised media, have lost touch with large sections of the electorate.

The second major lesson from the Scottish Referendum is that the days of obsessive centralisation of decision-making in Whitehall should now be numbered. It is clear that avenues for introducing a dramatic decentralisation of power have now opened up within England.

The opportunity must not be missed

But there is a risk that the chance to give a major boost to local democracy will be missed. Discussion of the intricacies of voting arrangements in Westminster – the so-called ‘English Votes for English Laws’ debate – is in danger of distracting us from the larger prize.

Last month Scotland came close to breaking away from the UK. The passion of the referendum campaign demonstrated truly massive frustration with the excessive centralisation of power within the British state.

Believing that adjusting voting rights in the Houses of Parliament represents an adequate response to the public clamour for the real influence in decision-making is to demonstrate a startling lack of understanding of what is called for.

What is to be done?

First, it is vital that politicians in Westminster avoid the temptation to try to execute a ‘quick fix’. Rather, they should seize the opportunity for a radical overhaul of the British constitution. This requires, almost certainly, the creation of a constitutional convention – one that takes account of the voices of civil society, local government and the regions, as well as the political parties.

On 19 September the Prime Minister made a speech in Downing Street in which he proposed that the restructuring of power in England should take place ‘in tandem with and at the same pace as the settlement for Scotland’. This is a wholly misguided approach.

The starting point should be to consider how to revitalise local democracy and local politics across the entire country. There is, to be sure, little public craving for the creation of another tier of government within England.

freiburg_200So, instead of wasting money on trying to reintroduce regional government, it makes far more sense to drive power down to the local authority level and, for some powers, to the level of the city region or county region. We already have a pretty good system of local government, one that can be up-dated, strengthened and given serious fiscal power.

It is worth recalling that, as local government has had its powers reduced, voter turnout in local elections has declined to an unacceptably low level. In recent years, with an average voter turnout hovering at around the 31% mark, British local democracy is sick. It has now established itself firmly at the bottom of the European voter turnout league tables.

Local voting rates in other countries are far higher with, for example, Germany at 70%, Denmark 72% and Sweden 79%. In these countries local governments are far more powerful than in the UK.

The challenge, then, is to reverse the process of centralisation and bring about a radical rebalancing of power within England.

Learning from abroad

The evidence from my recent research on place-based leadership in other countries shows that really powerful elected local authorities can make a major difference to the local quality of life. Moreover when the power of place is given a boost, and this is hardly surprising, public participation in civic affairs also rises.

Strong local authorities are now to be found in all continents taking bold steps to advance social justice, promote care for the environment and tackle climate change. From Curitiba to Melbourne, and from Copenhagen to Portland, we can see that radical urban innovation flourishes when power is decentralised.

Leading the inclusive city [FC]

Leading the Inclusive City will be launched at a talk given by the author at the Watershed in Bristol on 24th November 2014 as part of the Bristol Festival of Ideas. To book tickets please visit the website here.

 Leading the Inclusive City can be pre-purchased at the 20% discount price of £19.99 (rrp £24.99) from the Policy Press website – click here for more details.

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blogpost authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Scotland decides: Could the ‘Yes’ vote deliver a different kind of Scottish society?

Open University academic and Policy Press author Gerry Mooney has written extensively on the subjects of Scottish social policy and devolution. On the eve of the referendum to decide whether Scotland should become fully independent from the UK Mooney shares his views on how a ‘Yes’ majority return on Thursday could lay the foundation for a more socially just Scottish society. Interview and report by Rebecca Megson.

Gerry Mooney feels whatever happens at the referendum, the debate has changed the political landscape of Scotland

Gerry Mooney feels whatever happens at the referendum, the debate has changed everything for Scotland

Gerry Mooney is a ‘Yes’ man. Unapologetically so, in fact.

What’s more, he is bursting with excitement about the possibility of Scotland returning a majority ‘Yes’ vote for independence tomorrow. He believes that this will be the first step on the long road to developing a different kind of society from the rest of the UK, a society that is centred on equality and fairness.

But Mooney is quick to point out a misunderstanding about the ‘Yes’ vote, one that he suggests is being deliberately made by the Unionist politicians – that is those on the ‘No’ side of the debate.

“A ‘Yes’ vote has been portrayed as a vote for the SNP, for Alex Salmond and for Scottish nationalism”, says Mooney.

“In reality, the vast majority of people voting ‘Yes’ wouldn’t actually go on to vote SNP and are not nationalists. What a future independent Scottish Parliament would look like, we simply don’t know yet. That will have to be decided further down the line, through Scottish general elections.”

Misunderstanding

This isn’t the only misunderstanding about the referendum debate south of the border, according to Mooney. Whilst the UK national news focuses on what he calls ‘blazing representations of Scottish nationalism’ – men and women in kilts and tartans, calling upon the spirit of Braveheart – his experience is that this has been very much on the margins of the debate in Scotland.

“On the ‘Yes’ side there is no need to assert Scottishness, it is taken for granted, whilst for the ‘No’ camp they have to almost ‘overdo it’ in stressing their Scottishness,” says Mooney

“It is the ‘No’ campaign who have actually had to do a lot more because of the independence campaign as far as nationalism is concerned. They’ve had to defend their Scottishness, to develop and portray a sense of Britishness and a British nationalism that includes Scottishness.”

“Many people are unhappy with the policy decisions being made by the UK coalition government in London”

The real debates in Scotland over the past couple of years leading up to the referendum have centred on future Scottish public services and social policy, rather than rampant nationalism. Mooney says:

“Many people are unhappy with the policy decisions being made by the UK coalition government in London. There is a lot of opposition to austerity, to the privatisation of schools and the privatisation of the NHS. These policies are out of tune with what many in Scotland would like to see.”

Irrespective of the outcome tomorrow, Mooney believes the political and policy landscape will never be the same again in Scotland. Even if the ‘No’ campaign wins, if the ‘Yes’ campaign gets 48% of the vote, as some polls are predicting, that isn’t a voice that is going to disappear. The consequences of a ‘No’ vote are, according to Mooney, uncertain.

Mooney’s enthusiasm for Scotland’s independent future is infectious. He feels that the spirit of devolution will be equally as infectious for the rest of the country, predicting calls for greater devolution in Wales and the instigation of an Assembly in the North of England if a ‘Yes’ vote is returned.

Westminster Parliament feels 'remote' to many in Scotland - Photo Wikipedia

Westminster Parliament feels ‘remote’ to many in Scotland – Photo Wikipedia

“The rise in the dominance of London and the south of England in the last 10 years has really shifted the view on devolution. London seems as remote and alien to people in the North of England as it does to people in Scotland.”

Until recently, the ‘No’ campaign and the main political parties at Westminster have largely ignored the possibility of Scotland returning a ‘Yes’ vote. Mooney says:

“It is astonishing to see that the UK government has suddenly woken up to the fact that this referendum is happening. In the last two weeks, as the polls have shown that the ‘Yes’ vote was consolidating and catching up with the ‘No’ campaign, the ‘danger’ button has been pressed down in London.”

Mooney is amused that, as he sees it, the panic in Westminster has led to Scotland making the lead item in the news every day. Renewed focus on the country is, he believes, largely being seen as too little, too late.

“It looks extremely desperate. Until these past two weeks the ‘No’ campaign has been completely and utterly negative, portraying Scotland in crisis if it votes for independence. Now, all of a sudden there are promises of more powers and discussion of what being part of the UK can do for Scotland.”

There have been a lot of promises made by London if Scotland votes ‘No’ but Mooney feels that there’s very little sense of what the promises are likely to amount to in the long run, or if Westminster politicians can be trusted.

He says: “We don’t know what a future Scotland will look like – we can’t guarantee it will be the future we want and hope for but we will have more power to create that society if we’re independent.”

“However, we can be certain, if it’s a ‘No’ vote there will be more austerity, more cuts, more poverty and rising inequality.”

Mooney has no illusions that the change will happen overnight. However he is confident that the creation of a new Scotland that is focused upon the pursuit of equality can only be realised if Scotland delivers a ‘Yes’ majority tomorrow.

More from Gerry Mooney
Social justice and social policy in Scotland [FC]Read Social justice and social policy in Scotland - available at the special discounted price of £15.00 (RRP £28.99) from the Policy Press website this month.

Articles by Gerry Mooney
OpenLearn articles can be found here

The Conversation articles can be found here, including the recent: ‘Campaigns fight to define what Scottish Social Justice means’ 

On Discover Society: ‘Scotland: State and devolution…but not revolution…as yet?’

In the Scottish Left Review on ‘Poverty and Independence’

Gerry’s other publications can be viewed at his OU webpage

What is the ethical purpose of local government?

Ines Newman shares her thoughts on the ethical purpose of government

Ines Newman shares her thoughts on the ethical purpose of government

Ines Newman’s book Reclaiming local Democracy published in May.  At a launch in London on 10 June politicians, media commentators and the public debated some of the key issues covered in the book.  Ines Newman tells us more in her guest blog.

I wrote ‘Reclaiming local democracy’ because I want to generate a challenging debate on the ethical purpose of local government as well as more interest in local democracy. Brilliantly, that’s exactly what happened at the launch of the book earlier this month. Local vs central, financial independence and moving the agenda on from ‘what works’ to ‘what should an ethical local government do’ were all hotly debated.

Panel of speakers at Reclaiming local democracy book launch June, London

Panel of speakers at Reclaiming local democracy book launch June, London

Contributing editor to the Guardian’s Public Leaders Network, David Walker, raised the issue of a ‘postcode lottery’ if councils deliver different services in different areas. If, on the other hand, local authorities have an obligation to meet basic human need how can this provide scope for local decision-making? Such questions go to the heart of central/local relationships.

The basic human need for shelter places an obligation on governments to provide housing. But the form of the built environment and the variety of households in each area requires a discussion in each local authority area, involving residents, around what type of housing should be built and where.

My concern is how the local can influence the national

"I believe the central/local debate is misframed"

“I believe the central/local debate is misframed”

I believe that the central/local debate is ‘misframed’. We will always need strong central government to promote equality and facilitate redistribution. The question, therefore, is not just about which services should be devolved to local government.  More significantly, it is about how local government, together with local social movements, can help define basic human needs and rights at both national and local levels.  So my concern is how the local can influence the national. I see the Localism Act 2011, with its financial control of local government and minor devolution, as ‘hollow’ localism.

Financial independence

The lack of financial independence led to a debate on council tax. Council tax is highly regressive and has been made worse by its devolution to local government with reduced funding. This has resulted in many of the poorest households facing the highest cut in their living standards ever imposed by a government, as they now have to pay the ‘new poll tax’.

Hilary Benn shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

Hilary Benn shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government engrossed in Reclaiming Local Democracy

I believe that if politicians have the ability to right an injustice, they should do just that. Hilary Benn, the shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, raised the political difficulties that will be caused by the protests from those who will lose out. Another contributor suggested that it was therefore essential for council tax reform to be in a party manifesto so that the democratic mandate could be used to support implementation. I would like to see local councillors campaigning now on council tax reform, to ensure the voice of poorer residents is heard against the more powerful, affluent residents whose interests are threatened. This is precisely where the local should be influencing the national, so we can develop a fair tax base for local government.

Ethical approach

In the book I argue that we need to move the agenda from ‘What works?’ to ‘What should an ethical local government do?’ Hilary Benn argued that these two questions are not necessarily in conflict and I agree with him. I believe the problem with the ‘What works?’ question is that it is usually asked in relation to a narrow output target which may fail to address the causes of the problem. The ‘best’ solution can then be determined by an expert. If such a methodology is to be combined with an ethical approach, the political questions should take priority. By providing a clear set of questions to ask in relation to the ethical implications of policy decisions, the book aims to support the political process and councillors who want to make a difference.

It’s great that the book has started to generate a debate. The green shoots of a new revival in local democracy are evident and I welcome feedback on the themes both of the debate and the book in general.

Reclaiming Local DemocracyReclaiming local democracy is available at a special discount rate on the Policy Press website.  Get involved in the debate by encouraging your local library to order a copy! 

A missed opportunity: Why the Law Commission got it wrong on hate crime

Jon Garland, Department of Sociology, University of Surrey

Jon GaJG picrland and Neil Chakraborti are co-editors of Responding to hate crime: The case for connecting policy and research, published by Policy Press last month.

 

Recently the Law Commission published the results of its year-long investigation into the efficacy and scope of hate crime laws. The consultation, a reference from the Ministry of Justice, had the specific remit of examining the ‘aggravated’ offences and incitement to hatred legislation in order to see if these should be extended to include groups that were not previously protected.

That the Law Commission was asked to undertake this review at all was a reflection of the increased social significance of hate crime and also (and relatedly, of course) the heightened importance of hate crime legislation. Supporters of this legislation argue that it has a specific, symbolic importance in that it reflects society’s condemnation of the victimisation of marginalised and disadvantaged groups. However, one of the issues examined in this process was the inequality that exists in the provision for different victim groups within the mish-mash of hate crime legislation. The criminal justice system currently recognises just a handful of different identity communities as hate crime victim groups – the so-called ‘five strands’ of race, religion/faith, sexual orientation, disability and gender identity – about which the police are required to collect hate crime statistics. Surprisingly, though, some of these ‘five strands’ receive more protection from the law than others. For example, the aggravated offences provision within the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 currently covers race and faith groups, but not those relating to disability, sexual orientation or gender identity. Similarly, in the case of the incitement to hatred legislation, race, faith and sexual orientation groups are included, but not disability or gender identity.

So how has this rather odd situation come about? Well, the explanation is, in some ways, quite simple: there is no single all-encompassing ‘Hate Crime Act’ that covers different types of offences and all identity groups, but instead there exists a number of different pieces of legislation that have been drawn up over time which have, gradually, included one group after another in a rather piecemeal fashion. This has resulted in the disparities of provision that the Law Commission was asked to investigate.

Under a degree of expectation, the Law Commission therefore published the findings from its extensive investigations at the end of May. The Commission concluded, perhaps rather disappointingly, that a further, Government-sponsored review into a wider set of questions surrounding the aggravated provisions was necessary. It also, rather frustratingly for some disability campaigning groups such as the Disability Hate Crime Network, declined to recommend that the incitement legislation be broadened to include the strands of gender identity and disability. The Commission’s reasoning for this was that it had not been persuaded of the ‘practical need to do so’, that prosecutions might in any case be rare and that new incitement legislation might ‘inhibit discussion of disability and transgender issues’.

This verdict means that disabled and transgender communities still find themselves ‘out in the cold’ regarding the incitement laws. It also means that some groups appear to be accorded a more ‘privileged’ position than others within the five strands, which is an unfortunate outcome of the Commission’s work. Although the justification provided by the Commission for declining to make this recommendation  has some logic, it does seem a shame that it failed take the opportunity, in the words of the Disability Hate Crime Network, to extend the law’s coverage to ‘capture a unique, specific and grave type of wrong’.

 

 

 

 

A response to the European and UK local elections by Alison Shaw, Director of Policy Press

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When I set up Policy Press it was because I was passionate about social issues.  I felt strongly that we needed to fight for a fairer society, one that looked after all its citizens regardless of their wealth and background; race, ethnicity or faith; gender, age or (dis)abilities; regardless of whether they lived in England or Ethiopia.

Our authors are the experts on how to achieve that goal, from understanding the challenges at a theoretical level through to how to implement policy and practice on the ground, and until today, I have been delighted to let them do the talking.  But following the recent results in the UK local and European elections I am moved to join the conversation and speak out.

This weekend we have seen again the rise of the extreme right in politics, both in the UK and across Europe.  This move appears to be a response to a range of factors – a belief that the European Union is inefficient and has too much control over nation state policies; a fear that immigration is a threat to jobs, security and culture; and an understandable anxiety for many as the global recession continues to take its toll.

It may be that the European Union as an institution is in need of reform, but we have to remember why we have a Union.  Initially a post-World War II settlement, it was a means for ensuring cooperation to avoid future conflict.  More recently it has been more about power and global influence in response to the rise of the emerging economies of China, India and Brazil – but the initial  collaborative intent must not be forgotten.

My fear is that, if we remain silent, then things we take for granted like the belief in equality and fairness will be lost and things we don’t think possible, will happen.  Our authors’ thoughtful writing has helped me to contemplate many of these issues and the three books below stand out for me.

ImageThe UK Government’s response to the global recession was an ‘Austerity’ drive, cutting back spending dramatically, especially to the welfare budget. This has hit those already in challenging circumstances in a devastating way.  Mary O’Hara, a journalist and Fulbright Scholar spent a year travelling the UK interviewing those facing hardship and those supporting them.  Her eloquent, insightful book Austerity Bites, published today, provides first hand testimony of what it is like to be struggling –  not to have enough to feed your family despite working your hardest in low paid, insecure jobs.

When we feel our security is challenged, one response is to fight back.  When we feel threatened we can look around for those that are different to blame.  Perhaps this points to why we are facing an increasing tide of anti-immigration rhetoric.  The headlines in some of the UK tabloid papers have been shocking: “We must stop the migrant invasion” Daily Express, “4,000 foreign murderers and rapists we can’t throw out” Daily Mail or “How Romanian criminals terrorise our streets” Daily Express.

headlines

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Malcolm Dean, previously Social Affairs Editor for the Guardian, looked at how the media influences and manipulates public opinion and the effect this has on politics and policy in his highly praised book Democracy under Attack.  It provides perhaps one possible answer to how and why we have seen the French National Front, the Dutch Freedom Party and the UK Independence Party (UKiP) gaining such traction in the recent elections.

Image Dimitris Ballas, of Sheffield University and Danny Dorling and Ben Hennig of Oxford University have created the first European Social Atlas and it  analyses social and political Europe in detail.  This beautifully produced book shows in clear graphic form that Europe is a blend of cultures, languages, traditions, landscapes and ideologies that are often not bound by state or regional borders.  The social atlas of Europe is “an insightful look at today’s Europe” (Robert Reich, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy, University of California at Berkeley) and will be published on 25 June. It shows Europe and the Europeans in an entirely new light and highlights why we should be, working together, not pulling apart.

The grass roots are withering and the money is drying up – what future for local parties in general election campaigns?

 Charles Pattie_for blog

By Ron Johnston and Charles Pattie, authors of Money and electoral politics: Local Parties and Funding in General Elections, out on 7th May 2014.

With the 2015 general election now less than a year away, political parties will again be focusing on funding of their campaigns. As in previous elections, candidates will need two resources to sustain their general election campaigns – people and money. Each is in increasingly short supply. As a result, the nature of constituency campaigning has changed very substantially in recent decades, and is likely to do so even more in the future.

People are needed to manage the constituency campaign and to promote the candidate’s/party’s cause across the local electorate: as the average constituency has some 70,000 voters, this means reaching a large number of people. In the past, most candidates could rely on activists drawn from their party’s local members, but as their numbers have declined the available pool has been reduced. Some candidates have replaced them by supporters – non-members who are nevertheless willing to promote the party’s cause – and by volunteers from nearby constituencies where there is an excess of supply relative to demand.

Money is needed to sustain the campaign organisation – its office and equipment, plus staffing – but in particular to meet the costs of posters and leaflets. Research has clearly shown that the more intensive the local campaign, as indicated by the amount that the candidate spends on those items, the better the performance: those who spend more tend to get more votes, and their opponents get less.

This relationship is clearly demonstrated in our book just published by Policy Press – Money and Electoral Politics: Local Parties and Funding in General Elections. In it we found that the more marginal the seat, the more that candidates spend either defending what they hold or seeking to unseat the incumbent. But over the last two decades, even in those targeted places, the amount spent has declined – especially, but not only, by Labour candidates. It is becoming increasingly difficult for local parties and their candidates to raise funds – and central party organisations rarely transfer money to their local branches as contributions to their costs (although the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have done so for targeted seats in the pre-campaign periods).

In the four months preceding a general election, candidates can spend up to £40,000 on their campaigns– but in 2010 very few reported spending anything like that amount. The reason why is very clear from our analyses of constituency party accounts. All local parties with either an income or an expenditure of more than £25,000 in any year must lodge copies of their accounts with the Electoral Commission – which publishes them. In only just over half of the British constituencies (359) did the local Conservative party return its accounts to the Commission: even in a general election year, the Conservatives lacked a local organisation turning over more than £25,000 in over 40 per cent of all constituencies. But they were much better placed than their two main opponents: for both Labour and the Liberal Democrats there was an organisation turning over that amount in only 80 constituencies each – only 13 per cent of all seats.

Local parties derive their income from three main sources – donations, appeals, and fund-raising events. In 2010, those local Conservative parties that submitted accounts to the Electoral Commission raised over £3million in each of those categories – some £11million in total. The 80 local Labour parties whose accounts are available for scrutiny raised only just over £2million, the majority from donations, and local Liberal Democrats were in a similar situation – they raised £2.7million in donations, out of a total income of some £3.8million.

All donations to local parties above £1,000 must be reported to the Electoral Commission, irrespective of their total income. In 2010, the Conservatives reported 1,131 separate donations, totalling just under £5million. Labour local parties reported many more – 2,273 totalling £3 million: the Liberal Democrats received only 666 donations, totalling just under £2million.

So the Conservatives attracted more money, in larger chunks. And they got it from different sources than their opponents: one-third from companies, compared to just 8 per cent for local Labour parties, who got most of their donations (some 45 per cent) from trades unions. Some 70 per cent of the Liberal Democrats’ income came from individuals: Labour parties got 25 per cent of their money from this source and the Conservatives some 60 per cent.

As the money has dried up and the membership grass roots have withered, so local campaigns have become centralised – and increasingly focused on target seats. For the seats that they either hope to win, or fear losing, the parties conduct extensive telephone polling, produce leaflets for the candidates there, and send customised letters and other canvassing materials to potential supporters. Voters elsewhere are largely ignored and their candidates have to rely on what they can raise and mobilise locally.

This trend will be extended in 2015. The parties have already identified their target seats and placed control of the campaigns there in the hands of centrally-appointed staff. Voters in those constituencies (fewer than 150 out of the total of 650) will experience lots of canvassing activity – see lots of posters, get lots of leaflets, and be contacted by letter, e-mail, phone, twitter and whatever on several occasions: their votes count. That will not be the case in most of the other seats, however; candidates there may send them a single leaflet but otherwise they may be overwhelmed by the deafening silence of the local campaign; nobody will knock on their doors on election day to make sure they vote.

Might this all change if there is cross-party consensus that party funding should be reformed? Two main features of any such reform package have been discussed – and then rejected by at least one party: a cap on the total amount spent on campaigns (other than local); and a limit on the maximum size of any donations. Some hope that if such a package were introduced then local campaigning might be revived, with benefits for local democracy. But there is no incentive for the parties to campaign intensively in most constituencies: only the marginal seats matter.

And so in many parts of the country, the money available to candidates through their local parties will continue to dry up, the number of activists and supporters prepared to give their time to canvass electors will continue to decline, and local democracy will go on withering away. The trends and patterns identified in Money and Electoral Politics: Local Parties and Funding in General Elections can only breed pessimism regarding Britain’s democratic future.

Transatlantic lessons for middle Britain

Sophia Parker

Sophia Parker

This post originally appeared on the Bright Blue blog on 13 March 2013.

Sophia Parker is an Associate at the Resolution Foundation, having previously been the Director of Policy and Research. She is the editor of The squeezed middle published in January 2013.

The squeezed middle: the pressure on ordinary workers in America and Britain is a collection of essays from America’s leading thinkers in the field of living standards to understand what lessons, if any, we might draw from the US experience.

You may well wonder what we can take from a country where the crisis in living standards is so great that it’s not an exaggeration to talk of America’s ‘lost generation’. Productivity has risen threefold since 1970 but barely a dollar from this buoyant economy has made its way into the average person’s pay packet. Even the recent return to moderate growth in the US has not eased the challenges most families are facing.

The US is an outlier in the sense that the historic link between pay and productivity was brutally severed forty years ago – thankfully the UK does not exactly mirror this glum picture.

However Resolution Foundation analysis highlights a deeply worrying development: since the early 2000s, wages and household income have flatlined for British low and middle income families, and since the recession they have in fact declined. This suggests that despite important differences, at a fundamental level the US and the UK share a problem: while our nations have got richer, low and middle income households have suffered a stagnation and even decline in living standards.

There are other alarm bells that should be ringing too: as in the US, we have seen inequality rise sharply in recent years. Living costs continue to rise faster than inflation, significantly reducing the spending power of low and middle income households. Furthermore, from tax credits to worker rights, many of the policies that have historically protected Britain from looking more like the US are either under threat or being watered down.

But let’s not start wringing our hands just yet. While acknowledging the impact of globalization, technological change and immigration, the contributors to the book are compelling on the crucial role of policy and politics in shaping economic realities.

They underline the most important lesson that we can take from the US experience: decline and stagnation of the scale seen in the US is not inevitable. We do in fact have a choice as to whether we want to reverse the declining living standards of low and middle income households. Policy decisions and political priorities can augment or mitigate economic trends, and determine who gains most from any future growth we might enjoy.

So the question now is whether any of the major parties are able to find a language and set of policy priorities that make living standards an organizing political idea. There are some welcome signs that the new generation of Conservatives recognize the significance of the issues. But there aren’t many quick wins here. Reflecting on the American experience, the book’s contributors set out a challenging set of issues where action is needed, including:

  • A focus on who benefits from growth, as well as on achieving growth in the first place.
  • A focus on improving market wages, as well as on ensuring taxes and transfers are actively supporting working families.
  • A focus on broadening employment and in-work supports such as childcare, as well as on the quality of jobs.

President Obama declared that a chart showing the declining living standards of America’s middle class was his ‘North Star’ in his re-election campaign last year. Will any political leader here do the same? If not, then we risk treading the path that the US has already gone down – with disastrous consequences for the third of our working age population who live in low and middle income households.

The squeezed middle is available to buy with 20% discount at www.policypress.co.uk


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