Lord Willetts is President of the Resolution Foundation. He is a former Minister for Universities and Science.
Paul Goodman’s excellent piece on this site yesterday admitted that he was so old that as a student he remembered the Battle of Orgreave. I’m even older. I was working for Margaret Thatcher at the time, and remember meetings punctuated with messengers straight from one of Shakespeare’s history plays: “Nottingham is with us.” or “Kent is hostile”.
We wrestled with inflation and pay demands then. There are some lessons which are still relevant today.
First, there is still some truth in the economic proposition that pay increases on their own do not cause sustained inflation which can be brought down by a tight financial policy. Monetarism is often seen as some esoteric economic doctrine, but it was actually a political strategy as well.
If you believe pay demands cause inflation, then the Government has to tackle inflation by doing deals with workers on their pay. Back then, Labour’s links to the trade unions meant they were better placed to do such deals than Conservatives.
So Tories needed a credible way of controlling inflation that did not depend on their relationship with trade unions. The refusal of ministers to get involved even in public sector pay negotiations today is a version of the lesson that was learnt then.
There was a second Thatcherite insight which is relevant today. Inflation is not just a matter of economic theory. It is also deeply political. It is how a society reconciles inconsistent and over-ambitious claims on resources.
Thatcher saw it as the evidence of a moral failure – a failure to recognise we had to live within our means. If we all promised ourselves more than the economy could afford, then one way to reconcile these conflicting claims was to reduce their value by inflation.
Some people and organisations with incomes set in cash without inflation protection lose out. Responsible Government has to deliver the unpalatable but honest message that we are not as rich as we think we are. That is key to Britain’s problem today. We are poorer than we hoped because of a combination of the costs of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the higher cost of energy including the costs of the investment to move to Net Zero and the economic effects of Brexit.
So if you were to add up the incomes we all think we are going to get next year, that figure is ahead of the economic reality, and inflation is the only way to make the figures add up. Thatcher’s stern Methodist explanation of these truths barely appears in modern politics.
Apart from these enduring insights the parallels with the 1970s and 1980s are very different from today. Trade unions have much lower membership now. Indeed compared with the 1970s employers and capital are stronger and workers are weaker. That is one reason a lower proportion of GDP goes on wages. Trade union power is almost entirely in the public sector – there are few private sector strikes.
The public sector is much slower-moving and less responsive to economic shifts than the private sector. So when Covid hit us, public sector employees were more likely to keep their jobs and pay – also, partly, because more of their jobs deliver essential services. Public sector workers have more protection of jobs and pay in a recession.
But when inflation is rising fast then lagging, public sector pay puts them at a disadvantage. Public sector pay loses out when inflation is high. So at the moment total private sector compensation including bonuses is rising by eight per cent. Basic pay in the private sector is rising by five per cent. In the public sector that is closer to three per cent. So the sector of the economy with higher rates of unionisation also has lower increases in pay. Strikes are the result.
Ironically, inflation may reduce real pay in the public sector whilst also in the short term boosting public revenues. More people are pulled into higher rates of tax. Public budgets set in cash terms lose some of their value.
Overall, pay is rising less than inflation. This is not some inflationary spiral. It looks as if the adjustment to our being poorer is partly happening through pay rates. The disappointment of expectations which inflation brings is particularly felt amongst workers. They are unhappy, but they are not getting an explanation of what is going on around them which is honest about the economic pain and recognises who is bearing it.
The Government has indeed belatedly tried to protect people, especially those on the lowest incomes from rising energy prices. But it still needs to pull all this together in an account needs to show the scale of the adjustment we are going through and that whilst the sacrifices will be widespread there will also be some protection for the groups worst affected.