I'm the Squeezed Middle and I know who's doing the squeezing

Political leaders look on sadly but what are they really doing to change things?

It's not fun in the Squeezed Middle, trying to cope with Alarm Clock Britain as part of a Hard Working Family. But it's nice to know that our politicians really care about us. Care about us enough to think up slogans to patronise us, anyway.

So, here I am, back in full-time employment, though I've begun to realise why the Big Society isn't going to work. It's the same reason why so many working people aren't politically active. It's not so much apathy or class; it's just that doing actual hard work makes you tired. So tired that you can't be bothered to do anything other than fall asleep into a warm plate of food every evening, brushing the mouldy crumbs into your mouth for breakfast some hours later.

Work seems blissful after a time of unemployment. You start to become satisfied with less: just work in itself is a reward, let alone the money.

Obviously, given that you don't get a P45 straight away, it's the joys of emergency tax, but that's a small price to pay. I say "small price" but it's an enormous price to pay, if you're not getting paid that much in the first place, but that's beside the point: you get to look forward to money back at some point in the distant future, tucked away for a rainy day at 0 per cent interest. Lucky old you. No complaining, now.

I'm not complaining. I like working. I like work. I like money. I like being paid for doing something other than sitting around the house all day, even if, as it turns out, my annual salary is somewhat less than what I was earning in my first ever full-time job, 13 years ago.

Is that failure? Well, no: it's success just to have a job at all, nowadays. There are so many people who don't, and who have no reasonable short-term prospects of getting one, it seems churlish to put your hand up and ask if you could take home some half-decent cash as well.

But this is where we are, those of us who are in the Squeezed Middle, or well below the middle. Ed Miliband would like to help us. Nick Clegg would like to help us. David Cameron would like to help us. At least, I think they would. They say they would. They look at us, sadly, like you'd stare at a mangy old mongrel faithfully limping behind its owner to the vets that last time.

But in terms of actually doing something about us? Well, things aren't quite so clear cut.

I like the idea of tax cuts for the low paid. I have no problem with tax cuts -- if the right taxes get cut. Increasing the personal allowance is a fine and progressive thing to do, and is to be welcomed. But it's like chucking a cork to someone who's drowning and expecting them to say thank you. It might be something, but it's not going to solve any big problems.

The other tactic, of course, is to get those of us who are in work to hate those who aren't in work -- to set us against each other. The benefit cap is part of that strategy, to make those of us who are struggling to pay bills despise those of us who have some of our bills paid for us -- and it has the completely accidental side effect of kicking poor people out of nice areas where affluent Tory-leaning voters are entitled to live.

Rather flimsy statistics released last week about immigrants were part of the same mission: make the less well off concentrate on the undeserving poor and foreigners, and they might forget who's really screwing them.

Does it work? It might, if we let it happen. As I've said, it's exhausting trying to keep up with politics when you're away from a PC all day, when you're too knackered when you get home to glue yourself to Newsnight and digest the issues of the day. Tempting, perhaps, to blame the family on benefits across the road, or the immigrants next door, for why life sucks so much. Tempting, but wrong.

I may be the Squeezed Middle, but I know who's doing the squeezing. And I know just how much all three of our political parties are really doing to change that situation: not a great deal at all.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.