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Why Miliband is sticking to his "cost-of-living" attack

A few months of wage rises won't be enough to repair the severed link between growth and earnings for most. 

For months, Ed Miliband's focus on living standards has allowed Labour to dominate the political agenda. But with wages soon likely to outstrip prices (average wage increases currently stand at 1.4 per cent against inflation of 1.7 per cent), many outside and some inside of the party argue that he will have to change tack. Just as the return of growth forced the abandonment of Labour's "too far, too fast" attack on the cuts, so, they argue, the return of pay rises will repel its "cost-of-living" offensive. 

But in an article in today's Independent, the day before what sources suggest will be a major speech on the economy, Miliband outlines why he's not about to stop banging on about living standards. While wages may finally be about to creep above inflation, after falling for five consecutive years, he warns that this won't be enough to repair the severed link between growth and earnings: 

Until the 1990s, for every percentage point increase in economic growth, wages for middle-income Britain grew by an almost identical amount. That no longer holds true because the link between growth and the living standards of middle Britain has been broken.

Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts for the next four years published at the Budget predict that real earnings will on average increase at only half the level of economic growth in 2015 and will still lag behind, even in 2018.

And even these figures mask the truth of what is happening to middle-income Britain. It is expected that wage rises will disproportionately benefit those at the top while some major costs, such as housing, which hits working families hardest, are not included in the official statistics. So any gains middle-income Britain gets as the economy picks up will be nothing compared with the scale of the crisis that remains or the assault on family finances of recent years.

Miliband’s team points to the pre-crash period, when incomes for millions of low-and middle-income earners stagnated even in times of strong growth, as evidence that the market can no longer be relied upon to deliver for the majority. In an economy as unequal as Britain’s, any gains quickly flow to the top. Based on the RPI measure of inflation (which includes housing costs), the OBR forecasts that wages will be flat until 2019; there will be plenty of people who feel no better off in the next decade, let alone in the next year. 

In a riposte to George Osborne, who last week committed the Tories to seeking "full employment" (confusingly defined by Osborne as having more working age people in employment than any other G7 country), Miliband warns that this won't be enough if it merely means more low-paid, low-skilled, insecure jobs.

He writes: "The Chancellor is not only 70 years too late; he is also at least a decade out-of-date. Today, full employment – and getting people back to work – remains an absolutely necessary ambition but one that has become insufficient. People know that work no longer guarantees the better future for their families they used to expect. They are asking: what kind of work, what kind of wages – and what kind of prospects?" And warns: "This Government cannot deal with these problems because lying beneath its claims of being converted to full employment is an economic ideology built on low pay, low skills, low prospects and  low productivity."

The challenge for Miliband remains to convince voters not just that they're worse off under the Tories, but that they'd be better off under Labour. In the 2012 US election, Mitt Romney similarly resurrected Ronald Reagan's famous line - "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" - but the electorate stuck with Obama because the numbers were moving in the right direction and they doubted Romney could do any better. The Tories hope and expect UK voters will take the same view of Labour in 2015. 

In his article, Miliband cites his plans to reduce youth unemployment and increase skills (through the party's compulsory jobs guarantee), to crack down on exploitative zero-hour contracts, to spread use of the living wage, to cut business rates and to reform the banking sector to increase lending to SMEs. He also promises that Andrew Adonis's forthcoming growth review will outline how Labour will devolve power from Whitehall to cities and towns so that they become engines of growth, a line that will reassure those on the Cruddasite wing of the party seeking a firmer commitment to localism. 

What the piece lacks is the kind of retail offer that worked so well in the case of his energy price freeze. But that, one expects, may well come in tomorrow's speech. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.