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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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war