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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Wrists, knees, terrible rages – I felt overwhelmed when Barry came to see me

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state.

To begin with, it seemed that Barry’s wrists were the problem. He told me about the pain he was experiencing, the pins and needles that came and went in his hands. I started to examine him. His palms were calloused, his fingers thick and stubby, veterans of the heavy work he’d undertaken throughout his 57 years. Even as I assessed this first problem, he mentioned his knees. I moved on to look at those. Then it was his back. I couldn’t get to grips with one thing before he veered to the next.

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state. Barry was making me feel overwhelmed, the more so as I learned that he’d been experiencing all these problems for years.

“Why are you coming to see me about them now,” I asked, “rather than six months ago – or in six months’ time?”

“I need some time off, doc.”

There was something about the way he wouldn’t meet my gaze. And again, that feeling of being overwhelmed.

“What’s going on at work?” I asked him.

His tone hardened as he told me how he’d lost his temper a couple of days earlier. How one of the others had been winding him up, and something inside him had snapped, and he’d taken a swing at his workmate and landed a punch.

Barry had walked out and hadn’t been back. I tried to find out if he’d heard from his boss about the incident, if he knew what was likely to happen next.

He told me he didn’t care.

We talked some more. I learned that he’d been uncharacteristically short-tempered for months; his partner was fed up with being shouted at. Sleep had gone to pot, and Barry had taken to drinking heavily to knock himself out at night. He was smoking twice his usual amount. Men like Barry often don’t experience depression as classic low mood and tearfulness; they become filled with rage and turn in on themselves, repelling those closest to them in the process.

Depression is a complex condition, with roots that can frequently be traced right back to childhood experiences, but bouts are often precipitated by problems with relationships, work, money, or health. In Barry’s case, the main factor turned out to be his job. He’d been an HGV driver but at the start of the year his company had lost its operator’s licence. To keep the business afloat, his boss had diversified. Barry hated what he now had to do. He was now a “catcher”.

I didn’t know what that meant. Getting up at the crack of dawn, he told me, driving to some factory farm somewhere, entering huge sheds and spending hours catching chickens, thousands upon thousands of them, shoving them into crates, stashing the crates on a lorry, working under relentless pressure to get the sheds cleared and the birds off to the next stage of the food production chain.

“It’s a young man’s game,” he told me. “It’s crippling me, all that bending and catching.”

It wasn’t really his joints, though. Men like Barry can find it hard to talk about difficult emotion, but it was there in his eyes. I had a sudden understanding: Barry, capturing bird after panicking bird, stuffing them into the transport containers, the air full of alarmed clucking and dislodged feathers. Hour after hour of it. It was traumatising him, but he couldn’t admit anything so poncey.

“I just want to get back to driving.”

That would mean landing a new job, and he doubted he would be able to do so, not at his age. He couldn’t take just any old work, either: he had to earn a decent wage to keep up with a still sizeable mortgage.

We talked about how antidepressants might improve his symptoms, and made a plan to tackle the alcohol. I signed him off to give him some respite and a chance to look for new work – the one thing that was going to resolve his depression. But in the meantime, he felt as trapped as the chickens that he cornered, day after soul-destroying day.

Phil Whitaker’s novel “Sister Sebastian’s Library” will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt