The Obama polling that inspired Labour's cost of living offensive

While Romney led on managing the economy and reducing the deficit, Obama led on living standards. Labour believes the latter is the key to victory in 2015.

Before Ed Miliband announced his plan to freeze energy prices for 20 months from May 2015, he and his aides knew that it would "be big". They had long been struck by polling showing that rising gas and electricity bills were voters’ primary concern, ranked above wages, employment and housing. But even they have been surprised by the extent to which the policy has defined political debate since the conference season. Three weeks on from Miliband’s speech, the Labour leader's team believe it has had even more impact than George Osborne’s 2007 pledge to raise the inheritance tax threshold to £1m, with "huge cut through to the public" in the words of one aide. (A poll published yesterday showed that voters rate it above all the other policies announced by the parties during the conference season.) To their satisfaction, the Tories have struggled to settle on a consistent line of attack, unsure whether to dismiss it as a "gimmick" or as dangerously "left-wing", or to match it in some form.

The policy was devised by Greg Beales (jokingly named "Mr Freeze" by his colleagues), Miliband’s director of strategy and planning, who had long urged the party to shift its focus away from the macroeconomy and towards living standards. It was a reorientation inspired by Barack Obama’s 2012 election campaign. In meetings with the Labour team in London and Washington DC, Obama aides including his pollster Joel Benenson emphasised how important the president’s stance on living standards had been to victory in tough times. A report on the election by the veteran Democrat Stan Greenberg for Miliband pointed to polls showing that while Mitt Romney had led on "handling the economy"(51-44%) and "reducing the federal budget deficit" (51-37%), Obama had led on understanding "the economic problems ordinary people in this country are having" (51-43%) and on "looking out for the middle class" (51-40%).

This left-right split is mirrored in the UK, where a recent ComRes poll found that voters think the Conservatives (42%) are more likely than Labour (33%) to maintain economic growth and keep public spending under control (47-28%), but also that they believe their own family would be better off under Labour (41-31%).

Labour is confident this trend will favour it in 2015. As the economy enters a post-crisis phase, the party believes voters will become less concerned with macro issues and more concerned with whether their family is sharing in the proceeds of growth.

After missing their original target of eliminating the structural deficit in one parliament, the Tories have sought to turn economic failure into political success by emulating Obama’s 2012 campaign message and urging voters to let them "finish the job". But they have failed to recognise that Obama was referring not to government borrowing but to living standards. As for the warning "not to give the keys to the guys who crashed the car in the first place" – similarly inspired by the US president – a Labour aide pointed out to me that Obama "actually ran on that line in the 2010 midterms and it was a disaster".

The Tories have derided Miliband’s focus on the "cost of living" as a distraction from the primary task of "fixing" the economy, but this message is ill suited to a time when 11 million people have had no increase in their real earnings since 2003. Aware of this, the Tories are preparing a barrage of cost-of-living measures for the Autumn Statement but, more than at any other point since 2010, they will be forced to fight on enemy territory. 

Barack Obama waves to supporters after his victory speech at McCormick Place on election night November 6, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.