Labour leads on living standards, the Tories lead on the economy. Who will break the deadlock?

The party that triumphs in 2015 will be that which seeks to address its weaknesses, rather than merely playing to its strengths.

According to David Cameron, you can't trust Labour on living standards because you can't trust it on the economy. According to Ed Miliband, you can't trust the Tories on the economy because you can't trust them on living standards. Cameron remarked in his speech, "I see that Labour have stopped talking about the debt crisis and now they talk about the cost of living crisis. As if one wasn’t directly related to the other." Miliband argued in his, "The cost of living crisis isn’t an accident of David Cameron’s economic policy; it is his economic policy."

The polls show that voters agree with both. A ComRes survey published on Monday found that voters think the Tories are more likely to maintain economic growth (42-33%) and to keep public spending under control (47-28%), but also that they believe their own family would be better off under Labour (41-31%). After Miliband's pledge to freeze energy prices until 2017, 48% think his party is more likely to keep prices down than Cameron's, with only 21% opting for the Tories. If one party takes a decisive advantage before 2015, it is likely to be that which wins the trust of the public on both issues.

At their conference, the Tories made the error of too readily dismissing the living standards crisis as a temporary ailment that would pass with the return of growth. The most unintentionally revealing moment came when George Osborne rebuked Miliband for suggesting that "the cost of living was somehow detached from the performance of the economy". It was a remark that betrayed his failure to appreciate that the crisis is not merely cyclical (a problem exacerbated by his strategy of austerity) but structural. It was in 2003, long before the crash, that wages for 11 million low and middle income earners began to stagnate. The golden link that once existed between rising growth and rising incomes has been severed and shows no sign of being repaired. 

Growth may finally have returned but incomes are not expected to rise until 2015 and and will not return to their pre-crash levels until 2023. The minimum wage is worth no more than it was in 2004 and 4.8 million workers are paid less than the living wage. Despite this, with the exception of a hurriedly-announced freeze on fuel duty, the Tories offered no concrete measures to address the crisis. Pre-conference rumours that they would commit to a major increase in the minimum wage, or to spreading use of the living wage, came to naught. 

But confronted by demands from their MPs for doorstep policies to counter Labour's energy price freeze, the Tories are planning a fightback. Today's Times reports that, ahead of the Autumn Statement, Osborne "has identified water bills, rail fares and bank fees as areas where the government can act to help with household bills." Possible measures include a reduction in the cost of season tickets, new checks on bank fees and a crackdown on rogue letting agents. Ministers are also considering "relaxing an obligation on energy firms to pay for insulation in the homes of pensioners and benefit claimants." 

The Times piece is a reminder of the advantage that the coalition enjoys over Labour. While Miliband can only complain about the "cost of living crisis", Cameron and Osborne can act now. With higher-than-expected growth, the Chancellor will have additional revenue to play with, which he is likely to use to fund pre-election giveaways, rather than return to his original deficit reduction timetable.

For Labour, the challenge is to continue to devise more imaginative centre-left solutions to the living standards crisis, while also convincing voters that it can be trusted with the public finances. The party’'s alleged fiscal profligacy is perhaps the biggest obstacle to its election but Miliband mentioned the deficit just once in his speech. Until Labour wins back economic trust, the danger is that voters will doubt its ability to deliver its ambitious and, in some cases, expensive policies without once again imperilling stability.

Ed Balls's request for the Office for Budget Responsibility to audit the party's spending plans was a good start (hence its immediate rejection by the Tories) but fiscal responsibility must continue to be at the heart of Labour's message, rather than merely an afterthought. Some in Labour argue that this will require a gesture far greater than pledging to remove Winter Fuel Payments from wealthy pensioners, such as the abandonment of HS2, and Balls will be considering all options. 

The party that triumphs in 2015 will likely be that which seeks to address its weaknesses, rather than merely playing to its strengths. For the Tories, that means convincing voters that they can be interested to govern in the interests of all, rather than a privileged few, and that they have a plan to increase living standards, rather than merely GDP. For Labour, it means proving beyond doubt that it has learned from its perceived recklessness and can once again be entrusted with the nation's finances. The battle to break this political stalemate begins now. 

Ed Miliband and David Cameron during the service to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey, on June 4, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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