Chris Bryant: The truth about the slump lies inside voters' homes

A week in Westminster

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The Independent Online

I don't know what you call them – living rooms, front rooms, sitting rooms or if you're a bit posh drawing rooms – but there's a quiet crisis going on in them across Britain. As households sit down for their tea or their telly, any number of parents are quietly fretting about their family finances. It's not just those who have lost their jobs, though this week's rise in unemployment by 80,000 makes depressing reading. Nor is it just those who depend on benefits.

It's a quiet national living room crisis. By definition, inflation has always gnawed away at people's incomes, but this last year it has taken great big chunks out of personal bank balances. We used to talk of people on fixed incomes being hardest hit by inflation. But the truth is that wages are stagnant (apart from in the boardroom) and the vast majority of Britain is now on a fixed income so every percentage point on inflation slices into people's standard of living.

Often it's the little things. In our family it was always the telephone bill that caused the rows, but the cost of clothing and footwear has risen by an exorbitant 3.7 per cent in the three months between June and August, just as parents are considering new school uniforms. Train fares, which the Transport Secretary now admits are a rich man's luxury, but are a vital part of getting to work, are going up by RPI plus 3 per cent and London's commuters have just been told that the cost of an annual Travelcard is to go up by £160. And then there's fuel. It now costs just a shilling short of £68 to fill the average petrol tank, £12.20 more than last year and EDF have announced a whopping 15 per cent hike for gas and electricity.

All of which leaves many families tearing their hair out. Something's got to give. Rachel's music lessons. Tommy's swimming class. The landline. Dinner out. It's easy to be dismissive about all this. Nobody's going to die for lack of a cello lesson. But as middle-income families retrench, the economy retracts. So the VAT hike, the cuts to educational maintenance allowance and child tax credits, which bear down on the middle classes, harm the wider economy.

And for many, things are even rougher. Essentials end up being paid for on credit and pensioners turn down the gas when it's cold.

Perhaps most depressing of all is the fact that this is an inter-generational crisis too. Parents, even relatively affluent ones who have funded their children through university, are now struggling to make ends meet as their children, however hard they try for jobs, remain unemployed and unable to put something into the family kitty.

Shockingly, 973,000 under-24-year-olds are now unemployed – up 78,000 – and many of them have no choice but to stay at home. House prices are now so far out of the reach of many youngsters that even thirtysomethings are now stay-at-homers and the next generation of graduates are going to be so loaded with debt that the housing ladder is as dreamlike as Jacob's ladder to heaven.

This is still a quiet crisis, because nobody ever wants to own up to financial problems. When I was a vicar I knew one parishioner who, like the character in The Full Monty, was so ashamed that he never told his wife he had been made redundant until the debts overwhelmed him and the bailiffs were at the door. After all, an Englishman's home is his castle and his bank account his impregnable fortress.

But the quiet crisis could yet propel the economy into a more vicious circle of private cutbacks, weaker growth, higher unemployment, a heftier benefits bill and a generation of lost opportunity. That we must avoid.





A daft law giving us daft boundaries



It felt like A-level results day on Monday when the Boundary Commission delivered its first set of draft boundaries for England. I feel sorry for the Commission, though. A daft law has given us daft boundaries. Gloucester constituency won't have Gloucester Cathedral, pictured, in it. Tories and Lib Dem alike collared the minister responsible, Mark Harper, and moans emanated from the whips' office: "You never told us it would be like this. And to think I voted for it!"

I don't have much sympathy for Vince Cable, though. He complains that the Commission has crammed disparate communities together just to meet the arithmetic – but that's what the legislation he voted for insists on. Doubtless the Government will be worrying that MPs who are cut loose will rebel more frequently, but the bigger worry is that this is a distraction when we should really be creating jobs for other people, not protecting our own. Ironically enough, anyone fancying drowning their sorrows in the Commons Strangers Bar was faced with a choice of bitters: either Black Dog, after Churchill's nickname for his own bouts of depression; or Titanic.





Who knows who isan MP any more?



Apparently we had two accidental interlopers in the Commons the other day when two visitors managed to make their way with Labour into the Aye lobby, where Labour was voting. Parliament gained so many new MPs last year that it took a while for colleagues to realise that these were not errant Tory MPs risking the wrath of the whips but members of the public.





The SDP and a lumbar puncture: both painful



It's Lib Dem conference time, and it brings back horrible memories. In 1983 I had gone on an InterRail trip round Europe. Waking up one night on a train between Barcelona and Madrid I had the worst headache of my life and the world seemed to whirl around me. When I got to Madrid the hospital performed a painful lumbar puncture and inexplicably sent me off to a youth hostel, where I drank gallons of ice-cold Coca-Cola and doubtless infected everyone else.

When I got home to Oxford the next day, my doctor declared I had viral meningitis and carted me off to the infectious diseases ward, where I was in solitary confinement for a week. Sadly this was long before the multi-channel era and literally the only thing on daytime television was the Social Democratic Party conference, replete with oodles of prim self-righteousness. I'm sure it will be completely different next week.

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