The Tories remain in denial about the living standards crisis

Next week’s Autumn Statement provides Cameron and Osborne with the perfect opportunity to act - but will it be more of the same for the privileged few?

Last month, I visited a primary care centre in my constituency to hear more about the challenges facing those working in general practice. In the face of ever increasing demands for their services, stretched budgets and the ongoing upheaval within the NHS, these challenges are many and growing. But while well aware that food banks across the north east are giving out seven times more in emergency food parcels than this time last year, I was still disturbed to learn on my visit that, on an almost daily basis, the GPs and their support staff are giving patients the bus fare to get to the nearest food bank, from their own pockets.

No doubt the Prime Minister would welcome this as the perfect example of the 'Big Society' in action. He would possibly go so far to suggest that it’s saving the taxpayer money in the long-term as patients able to obtain a decent square meal are less likely to need to see their doctor so often. But I believe this appalling state of affairs is a sad reflection of the cost of living crisis facing millions of hard-pressed families and individuals up and down the country under David Cameron.

While out-of-touch Tory ministers might like to kid themselves that the threefold national increase in food bank usage in the last 12 months is a result of posters in local job centres – or because "they are not best able to manage their finances" – those of us in the real world know that increasing numbers of people now turning to food banks for help are in work but still unable to meet the basic cost of living.

And is it any wonder, when for 40 out of the 41 months that David Cameron has been in Downing Street, the cost of living has risen faster than wages? The stark reality is that average earnings have fallen in real terms in every region and nation of the country on this government’s watch, while the cost of family essentials continues to go up and up. Gas and electricity bills have risen by an average of £300 a year, and the cost of nursery places by 30% under David Cameron.  Households are spending 12% more on food bills than in 2007, despite actually purchasing 4.2% less food.

The economic recovery which finally appears to be underway after three years of damaging flatlining is clearly yet to touch the lives of millions of households across Britain.  That’s why Labour has called an Opposition Day debate in the Commons this afternoon, focusing on the cost of living crisis and the government’s economic failure. We believe that any economic recovery should deliver rising living standards for all, and not just for the Prime Minister and Chancellor’s friends at the top. We need a recovery that is balanced, that is built to last and – absolutely critically – benefits every corner and community of this country.

Yet what we have is a government with ministers who continue to bury their heads in the sand and remain totally oblivious to the cost of living crisis that millions are experiencing. Or worse, deny what they hear, and see, with their own eyes and ears.

It’s time that our complacent Prime Minister and Chancellor got a grip of this issue, by finally taking action to tackle the cost of living crisis now facing too many – for a start by implementing our proposed energy price freeze that would benefit 27 million households and 2.4 million businesses, and by extending the previous Labour government’s 15 hours of free childcare for three and four-year-olds to 25 hours per week for working households to help make work pay.

Next week’s Autumn Statement provides Cameron and Osborne with the perfect opportunity to take heed and do something - but will they stand up for the many struggling to make ends meet, or will it be more of the same for the privileged few?

Catherine McKinnell is shadow economic secretary to the Treasury and MP for Newcastle upon Tyne

George Osborne inspects material during a visit to AW Hainsworth and Sons on October 25, 2013 in Leeds. Photograph: Getty Images.

Catherine McKinnell is shadow economic secretary to the Treasury and MP for Newcastle upon Tyne

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From Netflix to rented homes, why are we less interested in ownership?

Instead of owning things, we are renting experiences.

In 2008 the anthropologist Daniel Miller published a book based on an intimate study of 30 households on a single street in south London. The Comfort of Things ­explored the different kinds of relationships people have with what they own.

Miller described a retired couple’s house, cluttered with furniture, framed photographs and knick-knacks accumulated over decades. Down the road, a self-employed man called Malcolm had rented a flat. Malcolm preferred a spartan existence: he kept his belongings in storage, the better to travel at short notice, and conducted as much as possible of his life online. His home was his email address. His central material possession was his laptop.

Today, we are living more like the laptop warrior than the retired couple. Increasingly, our possessions are stored in the cloud or on a distant server. Just as we had grown accustomed to the idea of owning music in the form of data, we are now getting used to not owning it at all. In television, too, we stream instead of buy the latest drama series; when people use the term “box set” they are rarely referring to a box of discs on a shelf in the living room. Everything solid is melting into wifi.

Instead of owning things, we are renting experiences. The proliferation of mobile apps enables us to source or supply whatever we want, for short periods, more easily than ever before. The “sharing economy” is not about sharing, however. I encourage my three-year-old daughter to share her toys with her little brother; I don’t suggest that she charge him an hourly fee for doing so. A better name for it is the Paygo (pay-as-you-go) economy.

The Paygo economy combines two intertwined phenomena: the rise of renting and the decline of stuff. If you are in your twenties and unburdened by wealth you may already have accepted that you will always be in hock to a landlord. If you are in the market for a car, you will probably be thinking about leasing it, or joining a car club, or waiting until Google makes car ownership obsolete. There are even apps that allow you to rent a dog rather than take on the responsibility of owning one.

A world in which we own less and rent more is not necessarily one in which consumers are empowered. You never really own the electronic versions of a book or a film – you can’t lend them to a friend or sell them on – because the publisher retains its rights over them. Even our photos aren’t ours any longer: they are owned by corporations that scrape them for data that can be sold. In a recent article, the Financial Times journalist Izabella Kaminska argued that “ownership of nothing and the rental of everything represents . . . the return of an authoritarian and feudalistic society”.

The Paygo economy is changing our relationships with each other and with ourselves. Possessions form part of what the marketing academic Russell Belk calls “the extended self”. In Daniel Miller’s book, he describes how objects, however trivial, can embody relationships. Each household’s collection of stuff – tacky souvenirs, CDs we borrowed and never gave back – forms a constellation of personal significance. Post-materialism does not equate with spiritual enrichment. “Usually the closer our relationships with objects,” Miller writes, “the closer our relationships are with people.”

Human beings have a deep-seated tendency to imbue physical items with the ­essence of their owner. Hence the market for rock-star memorabilia: an old guitar that has been played by John Lennon is more valuable, and more revered, than a new replica that has not.

We apply this intuition even to money, the units of which are, by definition, interchangeable. Psychologists who study “essentialism” have found that people are less likely to recommend that stolen or lost cash be returned when it has subsequently been deposited in a bank account, as opposed to remaining in paper notes.

When things evaporate, so does ­meaning. A fetish for owning things connects to a yearning to retain a distinct identity in the face of change. Japan has been economically stagnant for decades and, as a result (and perhaps a cause), has preserved a set of idiosyncratic social norms, at odds with the rest of the developed world. One of these is a strong preference for owning music in a physical form: 85 per cent of the music bought in this technologically advanced society is on CD or vinyl. Japan is also the last developed country to rely on fax machines. A fax, unlike an email or the past, is something you can hold on to.

One way of framing the central arguments of British politics is that they are about the rights of owners versus renters – and not just in the sense of home ownership. Long-standing Labour members believe they own the party, and are outraged both by Momentum clicktivists and £3 voters. What appals many who voted Leave in the EU referendum is the thought that migrants can, in effect, rent a livelihood from the UK, treating the country as a giant Airbnb host. They want to know if this is still their country, or if they are now merely tenants of it.

Most younger voters chose Remain, but relatively few of them voted. That was a function of their lack of home ownership as much as age: millennials who rent are nearly half as likely to vote in elections as their peers who have managed to get on to the property ladder. This is partly a product of the mundane business of spending enough time in one place to get on the electoral roll, but it nonetheless suggests that renters form weaker bonds with the society in which they live.

For centuries, what we own has been an important way of placing ourselves in relation to those around us. The 18th-century curiosity cabinet was a collection of objects used to display the erudition and refinement of its owner. In the 20th century, houses became showcases. Your curtains, your car and your choice of decor said who you were or wanted to be. This was the era of what Thorstein Veblen called “conspicuous consumption”. In the Paygo economy, we will have fewer things of our own to ­display, as our possessions dematerialise and we rent more of what we need.

Despite all this, human nature has not changed: we are still apes with status anxiety, endlessly preoccupied by our position in any given hierarchy, eager for ways to convey our aspirations and allegiances. So we find other ways to signal. Rather than deploy what we own to say who we are, we use our photo streams and status updates to show it, even going so far as to arrange our meals and holidays with the aim of generating impressive on-brand content.

The vacuum of meaning opened up by the disappearance of stuff may even have increased the stridency of our political debate. One way I can let people know who I am is by loudly asserting my membership of a political tribe.

If I can’t show off my possessions, I will show off my beliefs.

Ian Leslie is the author of “Curious: the Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It” (Quercus)

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times