Tory pledge on prosperity `will take 100 years'

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It could take the Tories more than 100 years to fulfil their Queen's Speech promise to double living standards, if they stay in office that long.

Opening Parliament on Wed-nesday, the Queen said her Government would continue to promote enterprise and further improve the performance of the economy with the aim of "doubling living standards over the next 25 years."

That aspiration was first floated by John Major in his speech to the Conservative Party conference in Blackpool two years ago - 40 years after the Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer Rab Butler set an identical target at the party's 1954 Blackpool conference.

But Labour's Treasury spokesman Alan Milburn was surprised to hear it included in the Queen's Speech, just six months before Parliament is dissolved for a May election.

"After hurting millions of ordinary British families," he said yesterday, "the Tories' assumption that they will govern in perpetuity is arrogance of breathtaking proportions."

He also pointed out, however, that on the basis of their record since the 1992 election, it would take 103 years - and not 25 years - for living standards to double.

Labour bases that calculation on the average annual increase in living standards for the average taxpayer on average earnings between 1992-93 and 1995-96 - of 0.68 per cent.

If last year's standard of living figure was anything to go by, the Tory target would never be achieved, because Labour calculates that living standards for the average taxpayer fell by 0.27 per cent, the first fall since 1981-82, after Tory "tax hikes" are taken into account.

According to the official "Blue Book" of UK national accounts, the average annual increase in "personal disposable income at constant prices per capita" - which does not take into account the impact of VAT increases - the annual average increase was 1.6 per cent between 1992 and last year.

Even on that basis, it would take more than 40 years to achieve the Queen's Speech target.

Given that it takes an average annual growth of 2.8 per cent to double living standards over 25 years, that is some target - even if the Conservatives do manage to remain in office for an unbroken 42 years from 1979.

But there are other, more technical difficulties. Mr Major told his 1994 party conference that people had "scoffed" when Butler had delivered the same target. "But he was right," Mr Major said. "For the country as a whole, they did."

According to the "Blue Book", living standards did not double between 1954 and1979; the increase was 85 per cent.

Labour, however, is more generous in its calculations. Using different data - the average earnings index for the average taxpayer deflated by Margaret Thatcher's Tax and Price Index - they estimate the annual average increase in living standards, 1979-1995, at 2.36 per cent.

It would still take 30 years to double living standards at that rate, even though that average flattens out some remarkable years - usually election years -- when there were marked rises in living standards: as in1983, at 4.2 per cent; 1987, at 5.1 per cent; and 1992, at 3.1 per cent.

But the killer calculation is the one produced by Mr Milburn - that on the basis of progress made on living standards since the 1992 election, it would take more than 100 years to double living standards.

By then, people will perhaps have forgotten the commitment made by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II when she opened the final pre-election session of Parliament before the 1997 election.

Even if the Conservatives do remain in office, undefeated, for another century.