Miliband should lead the fight to make life affordable for all of us

From the poor to the middle classes, the cost of living has become a big theme

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The Archbishop of Canterbury says he is shocked by the plight of the UK’s poor. An all- party parliamentary group follows up the Archbishop’s comments by reporting the poor are disproportionately hit by food, housing and fuel costs.

Such findings are awkward for a governing party that plans to cut billions more from the welfare budget, but David Cameron and George Osborne are electorally vulnerable  for a different reason.

In the build-up to the next election the poor are not alone in their sense of impotent fragility. Poverty in the UK is a moral issue, but on its own is of limited electoral significance. In the 1980s entire communities were left without support after their industries collapsed. The Church raised several loud alarms and the Conservatives continued to win landslides. The difference between then and now is that the affluent also worry intensely about the cost of living.

Of course there are degrees of struggle, from those who are hungry, to others who worry about making ends meet, and on to voters who are well-off but still taken aback about being ripped off. Together they form a formidable alliance, united only in their impotent despair about the cost of things.

Over the past few days I have had random conversations with friends and colleagues whose lives are far removed from those dependent on food banks. I am struck by  how often the price of services or vital goods came up.

A well-off friend told me that she and her husband went to Devon for the weekend, had wanted to take the train and were deterred by the cost of more than £300. They were going to face the insane traffic jams instead. On the same day, I bumped into an old friend who now commutes from the Chilterns. He told me the train fares were preposterous. He had tried to make use of off-peak fares, but the  rail company had changed the definition of off-peak, making it impossible.

The following day I met a German writer who had lived in England for many years. He said that when he returned to Berlin recently he was taken aback at the contrast in prices. He gave the small example of posting a book from Berlin to London at a third of the price it costs him when he does the same from England to Germany.

The affluent middle classes feel trapped by markets that are not competitive enough to deliver them services at decent prices. Only a government can liberate them. Ed Miliband’s recent whimsical party conference speech began by making a big argument about government acting on the side of most voters. The speech was poor, but the bigger argument remains fundamental to Labour’s chances of winning the next election in some form or another.

George Osborne has made his election pitch. Even he admits his deep, rushed spending cuts will take the UK back to 2001, an era when hospitals were being compared unfavourably to those in Poland, schools were decaying and transport was so appalling that, to take a small example, theatres were asking audiences to leave more time for journeys as so many were arriving late as a result of chaotic travel conditions. While some money invested after 2001 was wasted, and there is still scope for significant savings, the investment then was urgently necessary. Forget about the 1930s. Voters will not want to go back needlessly to conditions in 2001.

But the Labour leadership fears, probably correctly, that it cannot win a pre-election tax-and-spend debate by playing down the overwhelming need to wipe out the deficit quickly. This leaves it facing a dilemma. Does it enter the next election as it did the last one, arguing that the choice in effect is between the Conservatives’ “bad cuts” and Labour’s “good cuts”? It did not win last time by doing so. Evidently there is a hunger for a battle that is more than a re-run of the dark contest that was fought inconclusively five years ago. The failure of the Conservatives to benefit in the polls from the economic recovery and the rise in popularity of other smaller parties are manifestations of the hunger.

On the “deficit” – the ubiquitous term that Cameron and Osborne have managed skilfully to make the only economic issue worthy of consideration – I note a new informal alliance linking Labour, the Liberal Democrats (Vince Cable speaks for many of his party’s supporters in his genuine alarm at the Conservatives’ plans), the SNP and the Greens. The alliance might prove important after the election. Unfortunately, before  then, in the UK’s deranged “tax-and-spend” pre-election debate, the economic focus  will be a near meaningless re-run of “good”  or “bad” cuts.

 But, on the cost of living, Miliband has an additional theme and one that most voters can relate to. He detected early in his leadership a fresh topic relating to failing markets and must make more of it.

If he does so, he will move his party on from the issues that lost it the 2010 election. At its most lofty, the issues relate to regulation and how near-private monopolies or cartels must deliver more effectively for consumers. At its more basic, it highlights the cost-of-living crisis – an overused term that needs more explanation.

The “cost of living” is not a core vote issue for any party. From the poor who visit the food banks to the middle classes seeking somewhere affordable to live or buying a season ticket to travel in the south of England, the cost of living has become a very big theme. Only a government can intervene to sort it out. Miliband spoke of intervening in the energy markets, but has not developed his theme very much since, in a way, that commands attention.

In the build-up to the 1979 election there was a prospect of another dark re-run of the two inconclusive contests in 1974. The gloomy economic context and issues were precisely the same in 1979 as they had been in 1974. But by the time the 1979 election was held, Margaret Thatcher combined radical distinctiveness with expediency. She had moved on from 1974 and won.

Now the bleak context is precisely the same as 2010. Miliband must be more than an echo of Labour’s 2010 campaign. He can be fresh and distinct in showing how government can intervene to liberate voters from the tyranny of preposterous prices. Such a message would be almost the reverse of Thatcher’s anti-government pitch in 1979, but as timely, relevant and nothing to do with ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ cuts.