Take my hand, intrepid reader, and walk with me over the burning embers of British politics over the past decade, and hop off in the summer months of 2013.
This was the point, in the middle of the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition, when the Labour Party under Ed Miliband decided on its key attack line against the Tories: a situation known as the “cost-of-living crisis”.
Miliband had tried variations on this theme before – “squeezed middle”, “living standards crisis” – but this was the term that would be at the heart of his 2015 general election campaign against David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s austerity-era government.
Back then, Labour believed the argument that the cost of living was outpacing wage rises would resonate with voters. After all, voters had been told – amid freezes on public sector pay and working-age benefits, and cuts to public services – that “we’re all in this together” by the chancellor, George Osborne, the previous year.
It made sense on paper: wages were stagnating as the rich grew richer. But it didn’t work. Cameron won an unexpected majority in 2015 and the rest is, as they say or silently scream, history.
Today, with inflation having risen by 5.5 per cent in a year, energy bills rocketing up £693 per person, and the Bank of England chief begging people not to ask for pay rises, the cost-of-living crisis is back.
Politicians of all stripes, think tanks, charities and the media are using the phrase all over again. “It’s a bit two thousand and late, isn’t it?” quipped an insider who has worked closely on policy with Ed Miliband.
The phrase is poor for several reasons.
The first is the most basic: a bit like how you would never say “I prefer to Remain” if you’re choosing to stay out at a house party – it’s just not how people speak. Andrew Marr, the New Statesman’s political editor, prefers the phrase “can’t-pay-my-bills crisis”.
“Cost of living” sounds almost philosophical, when this is actually about our day-to-day existence: the hours we work never quite being enough to make ends meet, our bills going up, the price of tinned tomatoes in the weekly shop taking us by surprise every time.
There is also a deeper problem with the “cost of living” framing. It focuses on the rapidly rising cost of essentials, plastering over the squeeze on incomes. Yes, wages are going up, but not as much as prices.
Simply focusing on the inflationary pressure caused by global short-term supply chain issues lets the government – whose previous iterations have presided over a less generous welfare system and sluggish wage growth over the past decade – off the hook. During the recession and then the pandemic, workers have generally been losing out as shareholders and asset owners benefit.
Mathew Lawrence, director of the Common Wealth think tank, which advocates for fairer company ownership structures, prefers the phrase “crisis of living standards”.
“Addressing the acute crisis of living standards requires recognising this is a two-fold crisis: a crisis of real incomes, and a crisis of rentier power,” he told me.
“Those on low and average incomes have seen their wages and benefits eroded in real terms, while asset owners now get a greater slice of the pie. A real solution will boost incomes, via rising real wages and a ‘living income’ welfare system. And it will challenge rentiers, from landlords to private energy companies, with new models of ownership.”
However, even the word “crisis” may not cut through to people experiencing a squeeze on their living standards, warned Dora Meade, an expert in narrative strategy. She works on how to frame progressive policies as head of messaging at Neon, an economic justice organisation.
“The ‘cost-of-living crisis’ plays well if you want to obscure what is driving the situation,” she told me.
“Crisis language narrows people’s thinking and focuses attention on the here and now,” and doesn’t point towards a “clear villain” or apportion blame towards a particular policy or structural problem.
“It doesn’t lead to people thinking about the long-term or systemic solutions – instead, it’s about getting us through the storm: short-term, immediate relief.”
From her research into the framing of other social and economic problems, Meade finds “crisis language has also been shown to fuel fatalism: the belief that things can’t and won’t change… crisis-only messaging doesn’t suggest a way out, or a culprit, and we are left feeling helpless.”
This fire-fighting and fatalistic framing “plays well for the government”, she warned. “It seems like it is a situation out of their hands, which couldn’t have been predicted or dealt with differently.”
The Ed Miliband era of the “cost-of-living crisis” was at a time without record inflation. Things feel different now. People are starting to view the economy as something linked to their jobs and shop prices – rather than the old coalition focus on “balancing the books” of the debt and deficit.
This “everyday-ness” provides an “opportunity to talk about what is in our wallets, on the dining table, in the fridge; the emotional experience we have when we fill up our cars, open a bill, buy our child a new pair of shoes”, said Meade.
The challenge for the government’s opponents – or anyone who wants their money to go further and is unimpressed by the help so far – is how to “couch” the cost-of-living crisis. How to make it, in Meade’s words, a “compelling story of how we got into this situation and the systemic policy solutions that can really make a difference in getting us out of it”.