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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle