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UK Politics

Why Labour’s ‘cost of living’ campaign is rooted in transatlantic experience

Both the party leader and Ed Balls are avid students of US politics – as their strategy for demonising the Conservatives suggests

When Ed Miliband met Barack Obama in the White House last week, the two men were both keener to talk about domestic politics and the economy than the two pressing international crises in Ukraine and Gaza.

Mr Miliband hopes he has much in common on the domestic front with the US President, who won a second term in 2012 when he was behind his Republican rival Mitt Romney on economic competence, just as Labour is now. Crucially, Mr Obama was ahead when people were asked who would do the best job for the middle classes, while Mr Romney was seen as advancing the interests of the wealthy.

Mr Obama’s goal of building a fairer economy for the many so that it does not favour the few at the top is Mr Miliband’s guiding star. Asked to name his big idea, he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr on Sunday: “The big idea is to make this country work once again for ordinary people and not just a few people at the top.”

Like Mr Miliband, Ed Balls, the shadow Chancellor, is an avid student of American politics, and he has close links with the Obama administration. The two Eds both cite another US election to argue the continuing relevance of Labour’s “cost of living” campaign. In 1980, the Republican Ronald Reagan ousted the Democratic President Jimmy Carter after asking Americans: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

It’s a racing certainty that Labour will pose the same question at next May’s general election. Despite the return to growth, and signs that earnings are starting to keep pace with wages, Labour suspects that most voters will feel worse off after five years under the Coalition.

Labour’s determination to learn lessons from America has been reinforced by the hiring of David Axelrod, the strategist who helped Mr Obama win his two presidential elections. But even before that, Mr Miliband already saw squeezed living standards as Labour’s answer to Tory claims about a recovering economy.

David Axelrod watches Barack Obama deliver a speech in 2008 (AP)

Whether it will make up for Labour’s lack of trust on the economy is another matter. Just because it worked for Mr Obama two years ago does not mean it will translate to Britain.

While Labour has a strong message, the Conservatives also have a powerful weapon, However unfairly, many voters still blame the need for the Coalition’s spending cuts on the previous Labour Government rather than a global financial crisis. It helps to explain why David Cameron and George Osborne are well ahead of the two Eds on economic competence.

The Tories have also borrowed a slogan from the other side of the Atlantic: “Don’t give the keys back to the guys who crashed the car”. Copyright B. Obama, 2010.