Let’s Talk About The Economy
Today marked the release of more statistics about employment and wages in the UK economy. In a nutshell, real wages continue to creep up but remain lower than they were before the financial crisis. Employment, meanwhile, was marginally down on the previous quarter but up from the same period this time last year.
It is easy to get lost in the barrage of statistics released by the government that perforate the media and twitter feeds. Off the back of this morning’s stats, for instance, the CCHQ twitter feed retweeted an article from City AM entitled ‘wage growth hits 10 year high as employment improves'. Taken at face value, the article would suggest a high-pay, booming economy with a decent standard of living for those in work.
A similar message was reiterated at the recent budget where Philip Hammond boasted of an ‘economy that continues to confound those that talk it down’, ‘eight years of straight economic growth’ and ‘over 3.3 million more people in jobs’. It was a masterclass in cherry-picking statistics while framing economic growth and people in work as the nation’s only barometer of success.
We know this not to be true but we have been here before. We’ve maxed out the credit card, we failed to fix the roof while the sun was shining, frivolous overspending has the UK following in Greece’s footsteps. All of these metaphors were used to justify an era of austerity which had very little basis in macroeconomics. Yet, the lie persists. Even after being eviscerated on Newsnight, George Osborne still reverted to the line that he was “left a desperate economic and political by the [previous] Labour government.”
The final evolution of the lie is that ‘our hard work has paid off’ and ‘austerity is over’. Any agenda for progressive or transformative change needs to move beyond a clear rebuttal of this Conservative mantra to tell a convincing story about the purpose of the economy that connects with people’s lived experience and emotions.
Plenty of recent research has told us that statistics are not enough. For instance, Oxfam GB and the Australian National University have found that information about inequality boosts support for redistributive policies among non-Conservative and non-Labour party voters, but not those with party political allegiances. Research by NIESR has highlighted how people’s perception of immigration is often based on their own assumptions about the level of immigration, which is influenced by their daily lives, exposure to the media and impervious to change through statistics.
To put it bluntly, we need to be savvy about presenting the problems we face and the solutions we offer. The New Economics Foundation’s Framing the Economy report from earlier this year makes this point brilliantly. To take one example, reinforcing a narrative that the economy is rigged only perpetuates a sense of hopelessness and inability to provoke change. A more suitable message would be to say that the economy has been designed to serve the needs of an increasingly small number of very wealthy people but that it can be re-designed to serve the needs of the many.
Elevating these kinds of messages is part of the battle ahead. The work of the NEON Spokesperson Network is crucial in challenging these narratives in the media and this weekend, CLASS will be hosting a whole day of discussions and workshops premised on building strong and simple arguments across a whole range of topics – the economy, climate change, trade unions, benefits and immigration. The full details can be found at www.classbootcamp.com.