Labour’s debate on the living standards crisis in Britain sparks the start of the latest political contest.
Labour’s Shadow Chief Secretary, Rachel Reeves, returned to the front bench from maternity leave on Wednesday. Reeves used a speech to the Resolution Foundation and a debate in the House of Commons to accuse the Government of being out of touch with “the difficulties faced by ordinary families”. Reeves argued that the government has presided over the slowest economic recovery on record and has manifestly failed the UK’s “ordinary hard-working families”.
This group has seen their average earnings fall by £1,500 in real terms since the last general election, whilst the 13,000 people who earn over a million have had an income tax cut of £100,000. Speaking to the Resolution Foundation, the Shadow Chief Secretary said “household incomes and living standards are under pressure in a way that is historically unprecedented and this is being felt particularly sharply by those around the middle and bottom half of the income distribution”.
Historically of course, it was economic growth during the Industrial Revolution that caused an unprecedented sustained rise in real income per person. Compared with the rest of human history grinding poverty was replaced with extraordinarily high living standards for ordinary people in the modern age. Whilst arguably ‘standard of living’ means more than just ‘real income’, here in the political mainstream it is synonymous with money income adjusted for the cost of living.
In three hours of mostly unexciting and very predictable debate, Labour members rose with case study after depressing case study of impossible financial balancing acts. The combined costs of food, childcare and rent against incomes under the living wage on the precarious knife edge of the zero-hours contract. Of course, there was nothing new to hear here. That there is pressure on living standards is accepted. As Ben Gummer intervened to point out, the difference between the parities relates to prescriptions.
That MPs were thin on the government benches was unsurprising, this Opposition Day debate was political manoeuvring by Labour. The economy is showing signs of recovery after a long recession, and George Osborne seems to have won the argument on austerity. There will be no more of the tiresome catchphrase “too far, too fast”. The next political contest in the run up to the 2015 election will be ‘who benefits’ from this economic recovery. The ‘ordinary hard-working families’ are the swing voters that will decide the next election for Labour if they can be convinced that the economy is not working for them.