First the good news. Employment is rising and unemployment is falling. Both claimant count rates and Labour Force Survey rates are down. Compared with a year ago, employment is up 279,092 to 29,869,489; LFS unemployment is down from 7.87% to 7.69%; and the claimant count rate is down from 4.7% to 4.0%.
Now the bad news. Even though more people are in employment, real wages have fallen. In other words, nominal wages have risen less fast than prices. Since 2009, real wages have fallen by 7.6% and have continued to fall throughout this period. The first chart illustrates this. It shows average weekly wage rates in 2005 prices. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
The fall in real wages is an average for the whole country. Many people, especially those on low incomes, have seen their real wages fall much faster than the average. For many there is a real ‘cost of living’ crisis.
But why have real wages fallen despite the rise in employment? The answer is that output per hour worked has declined. This is illustrated in the second chart, which compares UK output per worker with that of other G7 countries. UK productivity has fallen both absolutely and relative to other G7 countries, most of which have had higher rates of investment.
The falling productivity in the UK requires more people to be employed to produce the same level of output. Part of what seems to be happening is that many employers have been prepared to keep workers on in return for lower real wages, even if demand from their customers is falling. And many workers have been prepared to accept real wage cuts in return for keeping their jobs.
Another part of the explanation is that the jobs that have been created have been largely in low-skilled, low-wage sectors of the economy, such as retailing and other parts of the service sector.
But falling productivity is only part of the reason for falling real wages. The other part is rising prices. A number of factors have contributed to this. These include a depreciation of the exchange rate back in 2008, the effects of which took some time to filter through into higher prices in the shops; a large rise in various commodity prices; and a rise in VAT and various other administered prices.
So what is the answer to falling real wages? The articles below consider the problem and some of the possible policy alternatives.
Inflation, unemployment and UK ‘misery’ BBC News, Linda Yueh (16/10/13)
Employment is growing, but so are the wage slaves The Guardian, Larry Elliott (16/10/13)
Living standards – going down and, er, up BBC News, Nick Robinson (26/7/13)
Revealed: The cost of living is rising faster in the UK than anywhere in Europe, with soaring food and energy bills blamed Mail Online, Matt Chorley (16/10/13)
Cutting prices to raise living standards is just a waste of energy The Telegraph, Roger Bootle (6/10/13)
Downturn sees average real wages collapse to a record low Independent, Ben Chu (17/10/13)
Why living standards and public finances matter Financial Times, Gavin Kelly (29/9/13)
Social Mobility Tsar Alan Milburn Calls on Government to Boost Wages to End UK Child Poverty International Business Times, Ian Silvera (17/10/13)
Do incorrect employment growth figures explain low UK productivity? The Guardian, Katie Allen (23/10/13)
Unemployment data ONS
Average Weekly Earnings dataset ONS
Consumer Prices Index ONS
International Comparison of Productivity ONS
- How are real wages measured?
- Why have real wage rates fallen in the UK since 2009?
- What factors should be included when measuring living standards?
- Why has employment risen and unemployment fallen over the past two years?
- What factors could lead to a rise in real wages in the future?
- What government policies could be adopted to raise real wages?
- Assess these policies in terms of their likely short-term success and long-term sustainability.
The cost of living is a contentious issue and is likely to form a key part of the political debate for the next few years. This debate has been fuelled by the latest announcement by SSE of an average rise in consumer energy bills of 8.2%, meaning that an average dual-fuel customer would see its bill rise by £106. With this increase, the expectation is that the other big energy companies will follow suit with their own price rises.
Energy prices are made up of numerous factors, including wholesale prices, investment in infrastructure and innovation, together with government green energy taxes. SSE has put their price hike down to an increase in wholesale prices, but has also passed part of the blame onto the government by suggesting that the price hikes are required to offset the government’s energy taxes. Will Morris, from SSE said:
We’re sorry we have to do this…We’ve done as much as we could to keep prices down, but the reality is that buying wholesale energy in global markets, delivering it to customers’ homes, and government-imposed levies collected through bills – endorsed by all the major parties – all cost more than they did last year.
The price hike has been met with outrage from customers and the government and has provided Ed Miliband with further ammunition against the Coalition’s policies. However, even this announcement has yet to provide the support for Labour’s plans to freeze energy prices, as discussed in the blog Miliband’s freeze. Customers with other energy companies are likely to see similar price rises in the coming months, as SSE’s announcement is only the first of many. A key question is how will the country provide the funding for much needed investment in the energy sector? The funds of the government are certainly not going to be available to provide investment, so the job must pass to the energy companies and in turn the consumers. It is this that is given as a key reason for the price rises.
Investment in the energy infrastructure is essential for the British economy, especially given the lack of investment that we have seen over successive governments – both Labour and Conservative. Furthermore, the government’s green targets are essential and taxation is a key mechanism to meet them. Labour has been criticized for its plans to freeze energy prices, which may jeopardise these targets. The political playing field is always fraught with controversy and it seems that energy prices and thus the cost of living will remain at the centre of it for many months.
More energy price rises expected after SSE increase BBC News (10/10/13)
SSE retail boss blames government for energy price rise The Telegraph, Rebecca Clancy (10/10/13)
A better way to take the heat out of energy prices The Telegraph (11/10/13)
SSE energy price rise stokes political row Financial Times, John Aglionby and Guy Chazan (10/10/13)
Ed Miliband condemns ‘rip-off’ energy firms after SSE 8% price rise The Guardian, Terry Macalister, Angela Monaghan and Rowena Mason (28/9/12)
Coalition parties split over energy companies’ green obligations Independent, Nigel Morris (11/10/13)
Energy price rise: David Cameron defends green subsidies The Guardian, Rowena Mason (10/10/13)
‘Find better deals’ users urged as energy bills soar Daily Echo (11/10/13)
Energy Minister in row over cost of taxes Sky News (10/10/13)
SSE energy price rise ‘a bitter pill for customers’ The Guardian, Angela Monaghan (10/10/13)
Energy firm hikes prices, fuels political row Associated Press (10/10/13)
Only full-scale reform of our energy market will prevent endless price rises The Observer, Phillip Lee (27/10/13)
- In what market structure would you place the energy sector?
- Explain how green taxes push up energy bills? Use a diagram to support your answer.
- Consider the energy bill of an average household. Using your knowledge and the articles above, allocate the percentage of that bill that is derived from wholesale prices, green taxes, investment in infrastructure and any other factors. Which are the key factors that have risen, which has forced SSE (and others) to push up prices?
- Why is investment in energy infrastructure and new forms of fuel essential? How might such investment affect future prices?
- Why has Labour’s proposed 20-month price freeze been criticised?
- What has happened to energy prices over the past 20 years?
- Is there now a call for more government regulation in the energy sector to allay fears of rises in the cost of living adversely affecting the poorest households?
Increases in the cost of living over the past few years have put many families under financial pressure. One of the main factors that has been hurting households is the price of petrol and diesel. Road fuel duty was due to be increased last August, but the Chancellor delayed it in June. However, a planned 3p rise in duty by the Coalition, which has faced rebellion from numerous MPs may now be delayed further, following a hint from the Treasury.
The government has said that it will do everything it can to support struggling families with the cost of living and this has led many to conclude that in the Autumn Statement, the Chancellor will delay the planned 3p rise. Labour was defeated in its efforts to force a delay of the proposed 3p duty rise, as Tory bankbenchers were given this hint that the Treasury would decide to delay the increase anyway. The Economic Secretary to the Treasury said that fuel duty is part of the government’s strategy to help cut the cost of living. He commented that fuel duty was 20% lower in real terms compared to March 2000, when it was at its peak.
If we had continued with the policies of the previous government, quite simply prices would be higher, fuel would be 10p more expensive per litre. I know some will call for a further freeze in fuel duty today. I can assure them this government understands the financial pressures hard-working families are facing. Subject to the constraints of the public finances, this government is determined to help families with the cost of living.
A key economic question to consider is why is fuel one of the products that is frequently taxed? When a tax is imposed on a product, its price will rise and as the law of demand tells us, this will cause people to purchase less of it. But, what is so special about petrol? Why do people continue to purchase petrol even when its price rises? The following articles consider the concerns surrounding the 3p fuel duty rise.
Treasury to defer planned increase in fuel duty The Guardian, Nicholas Watt (13/11/12)
Asda chief Andy Clarke urges scrapping fuel duty rise BBC News (15/11/12)
Fuel Duty: Labour to force vote to delay 3p rise The Guardian, Helene Mulholland (12/11/12)
Fuel duty delay called for by Which? BBC News (11/11/12)
Fuel Duty: Government may still axe increase Sky News (13/11/12)
Chancellor heads off fuel duty rebellion Financial Times, George Parker (12/11/12)
Osborne pressed to shelve fuel duty rise Financial Times, George Parker (8/11/12)
Planned 3p petrol increase could be abandonedThe Telegraph, Christopher Hope (11/11/12)
- Why is petrol a good that is taxed so heavily?
- Illustrate the impact of a tax on petrol using a demand and supply diagram. Explain what happens to the equilibrium price and quantity.
- Which factors will make the change in price and quantity relatively larger or smaller? Think about how elasticity is relevant here.
- What other factors have contributed towards the increased cost of living over the past few years?
- Which factors in particular would make a January rise in fuel duty especially painful for many families?
- What are the arguments both for and against delaying the 3p rise in duty?
- According to the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, fuel duty is 20% lower in real terms. What does this actually mean?
Trade union action has been a feature of the British labour market over the past few years, as discussed in this first and second blog. With the government’s austerity measures still in place and ongoing issues over pension provision, there are many explosive issues that will undoubtedly be discussed at this year’s TUC Conference in Brighton.
We have already heard from numerous unions that strike action over the coming year is ‘inevitable’. With rising prices, static or even falling wages, reduced pension provision and increased contributions, the cost of living has become increasingly unaffordable for many members of the trade unions. Dave Prentis, the General Secretary of Unison said:
‘I think people have been pushed into a corner. They are moving into poverty … The threat is that if we can’t move forward in negotiations to find a way through it then we will move to industrial action. There is no doubt whatsoever that we can create disputes throughout next year.’
Although few would argue against the notion that the government’s finances are in a dire state and spending cuts together with tax rises are needed, the controversy seems to lie in exactly when these cuts should take place and how severe they should be. For many, cutting government spending and raising taxes whilst the economy is still in recession is asking for trouble. For others, it’s the right thing to do and everyone should play a part in helping to return government finances to a semblance of balance. The Labour government has traditionally supported trade unions, but even their leadership backed the government’s plan for pay restraint for public sector workers. This, together with the continuing debates over public sector pensions has clearly angered many public sector workers, thus creating this ‘inevitable’ industrial action over the coming year.
Unison and GMB have said that they will be working together in order to try to better pay and conditions for its members, by co-ordinating public-sector strikes around Spring next year. Co-ordinated strikes across a variety of sectors could create havoc for the economy. Not just disruption for the everyday person, but losses for businesses and the economy. A general strike has not taken place since 1926, but it is thought that TUC delegates will be voting on whether or not one should be planned. So, when faced with these inevitable strikes, should the government back down and cut back on austerity or stand up to them and suffer the disruption of a strike, whilst continuing on with bringing its budget back on track? The following articles look at the TUC Congress and the proposed strike action.
Public sector unions plan Spring strikes Guardian, Dan Milmo (9/9/12)
Trade union warns of further strikes Financial Times, Brian Groom (7/9/12)
Trade union officials gather for TUC Congress in Brighton BBC News, John Moylan (9/9/12)
Unite union leader warns of wave of public sector strikes Guardian, Dan Milmo (7/9/12)
Unison and GMB unions planning co-ordinated strikes over pay BBC News, Justin Parkinson (9/9/12)
TUC Conference 2012: a mixture of new and old Channel 4 News (9/9/12)
Government must stand up to these TUC bully tactics Express, Leo McKinstry (9/9/12)
- What is the purpose of a trade union?
- What is the difference between individual and collective bargaining? Why is collective bargaining likely to be more successful in achieving certain aims?
- If there is co-ordinated strike action, what are the likely costs for (a) the workers on strike (b) the non-striking workers (c) businesses and (d) the economy?
- What are the main issues being debated between unions and the government?
- Explain the economic reasoning behind Dave Prentis’ statement that people are being moved into poverty.
- Do you agree with strike action? Do you think it has any effect?
- When do you think is the right time to implement austerity measures? Has the government got it right? As always, make sure you explain your answer!!