Labour spent the summer bemoaning the “cost of living crisis” afflicting families as wages continue to lag behind prices. But while Ed Miliband might be identifying the right problems, David Cameron and Nick Clegg have one major advantage over him: they can act now. Clegg’s announcement that all five-to-seven-year-olds will receive free school meals from next September, saving families around £400 a year, is the best example yet of how the government is shifting its focus from the macroeconomy to living standards.
The Deputy PM said: “My ambition is that every primary school pupil should be able to sit down to a hot, healthy lunch with their classmates every day. Millions of parents across the country are feeling the squeeze. Over the course of a year families spend over £400 lunch money for each child. I am determined to do all we can to help put money back in the pockets of these families. We will start with infant school pupils because teaching healthy habits young, and boosting attainment early, will bring the biggest benefits. Universal free school meals will help give every child the chance in life that they deserve, building a stronger economy and fairer society.”
The political danger for Labour is that the coalition will blunt its attack over the cost of living by demonstrating to voters that it is taking action now. With higher-than-expected growth, Osborne has additional revenue to play with, which he is likely to use to fund pre-election giveaways such as this (the school meals plan costs £600m), rather than returning to his original deficit reduction timetable. The pressure is now on Ed Miliband to produce policies on wages, jobs, housing and childcare that will convince voters that they’d be better off under a Labour government.