It’s the “squeeze”, not the “middle”, that matters

Labour needs to ignore definitions of the “middle” and focus on policies that address the “squeezed

The next election is going to be the "living standards" election. This week's forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility show that the Tory election strategy will be to offer the public the chance to have back £6bn of its money in tax cuts. The figure echoes the £6bn in efficiency savings that the Tories made the centrepiece of their last election campaign, allowing them to pledge an end to "Labour's jobs tax". In the end, they cancelled the National Insurance rise for employers only, not employees, but they look likely to offer tax cuts at the next election, too.

Labour has to avoid fighting the last election again. In a speech to Demos this week, the party's last election co-ordinator expressed regret that the run-up to Labour's campaign was wasted on refusing to acknowledge the need for cuts and on using the "Mr 10 Per Cent" dividing line that worked in 2001 and 2005, but lacked credibility by the last election.

Douglas Alexander warned of a "jobless recovery" but was careful not to be seen to wish for one. The mistake the Tories made at the start of Labour's first term was to predict "a downturn made in Downing Street" that never came. So it is vital that Labour avoids rubbing its hands at every bit of bad news and being seen to be willing a double-dip recession.

In the past week, the right has sought to attack Ed Miliband's focus on "the squeezed middle" by attacking the definition of "middle". Labour needs to ignore this and focus on policies to address the "squeeze". There are many definitions of "the middle", from John Healey's essay for Demos back in the summer to Liam Byrne's article in the latest issue of Progress magazine. It really doesn't matter if voters are earning up to £50,000 and it really doesn't matter if voters earning up to £30,000 are suffering a "triple crunch" or a double whammy. It's the squeeze that matters, not the middle.

Across the country, there is a "squeezed generation": those people paying for the social care of their elderly relatives while also trying to help their children through university or on to the property ladder. This generation is represented at the "bottom", at the "top" and in the "middle".

Young families will be squeezed by cuts to childcare tax credits. Commuters will be squeezed by rising rail fares. And if there is a jobless recovery or if living standards for Britain's middle continue to stall, the squeezes will be cross-cutting and socially pervasive. Across the board, there is going to be a squeeze.

If the Tories go into the next election offering tax cuts, Labour should seriously consider matching at least some of these. For now, Labour needs to keep focused on framing the next election as "the living standards election", because it will connect with the contemporary reality that voters are going to live through. They must hope for a recovery that raises living standards and returns the country to full employment.

Only when it fails to happen should they blame the government. The squeeze is coming and every voter will experience it in a different way. What matters is whether Labour can convince voters that it understands their squeeze and has solutions to help them feel better under Labour.

Richard Darlington is head of the Open Left project at Demos.

Richard Darlington is Head of News at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @RDarlo.

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Appearing in a book is strange – being an actual character must be stranger

Much as it jolts me to come across a reference to my music in something I'm reading, at least it's not me.

I was happily immersed in the world of a novel the other day, Rachel Elliott’s Whispers Through a Megaphone, when suddenly I was jolted back into reality by my own appearance in the book. One of the characters hears someone singing and is told, “‘It’s Leonora. She sings with her window open.’ ‘She’s good – sounds like Tracey Thorn.’ ‘She does, doesn’t she.’”

It was as if I’d walked on stage while still being in the audience. It’s happened to me before, and is always startling, a kind of breaking of the fourth wall. From being the reader, addressed equally and anonymously, you become, even momentarily, a minor character or a representative of something. In this instance it was flattering, but the thing is, you have no control over what the writer uses you to mean.

In David Nicholls’s Starter for Ten, set in the mid-Eighties, the lead character, Brian – a hapless student, failing in both love and University Challenge – hopes that he is about to have sex with a girl. “We stay up for an hour or so, drinking whisky, sitting on the bed next to each other and talking and listening to Tapestry and the new Everything But the Girl album.” Ah, I realised, here I represent the kind of singer people listen to when they’re trying, though possibly failing, to get laid.

Fast-forward a few years, to the mid-Nineties of Bret Easton Ellis’s Glamorama, a book constructed from lists of people and things, clothes and music, which apparently indicate the vacuousness of modern life. “I dash into the Paul Smith store on Bond Street, where I purchase a smart-looking navy-gray raincoat. Everything But the Girl’s ‘Missing’ plays over everything” and later, “In the limo heading toward Charing Cross Road Everything But the Girl’s ‘Wrong’ plays while I’m studying the small white envelope . . .” Here I’m being used to represent the way bands become briefly ubiquitous: our songs are a soundtrack to the sleazy glamour of the novel.

These mentions are all fine; it’s only the music that features, not me. Spotting yourself as an actual character in someone’s novel must be more shocking: one of the perils of, for instance, being married to a novelist. I think of Claire Bloom and Philip Roth. First she wrote a memoir about how ghastly it was being married to him, then he wrote a novel about how ghastly it was to be married to someone very like her. Books as revenge: that’s very different indeed.

Few people who had ever met Morrissey emerged from his memoir unscathed (me included), but particularly Geoff Travis of Rough Trade. He was hung, drawn and quartered in the book, yet seems to have maintained a dignified silence. But it’s hard knowing how to deal with real people in memoirs. In mine, I chose not to name one character, a boy who broke my 18-year-old heart. Feverish speculation among old friends, all of whom guessed wrong, proved how much attention they’d been paying to me at the time. I also wrote about my teenage band, the Marine Girls, and then sent the chapter to the other members for approval. Which led to a fresh outbreak of hostilities and not-speaking, 25 years after we’d broken up. Don’t you just love bands?

Worrying about any of this would stop anyone ever writing anything. Luckily it didn’t deter John Niven, whose scabrous music-biz novel, Kill Your Friends, mixes larger-than-life monsters such as the fictional A&R man Steven Stelfox with real people: and not just celebs (Goldie, the Spice Girls), but record company executives (Ferdy Unger-Hamilton, Rob Stringer) known best to those of us in the biz, and presumably thrilled to have made it into a book. John confirmed to me recently: “In the end I got more grief from people I left out of the book than those I put in. Such is the ego of the music industry. I heard of one executive who bought about 30 copies and would sign them for bands, saying, ‘This was based on me.’ You create the Devil and people are lining up to say, ‘Yep. I’m that guy.’”

In other words, as I suspected, there’s only one thing worse than being written about. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred