Ed Miliband doesn’t have the luxury of time. He has warned that it could take a while to propose a new programme for government; the party, he told the Labour conference, needs to “go on a journey”. It had better be a quick one, because on 20 October voters will be looking to Labour’s new leader for his response to the Conservative spending plans. If he doesn’t say something clear and positive to them, they may not look again.
Miliband needs to sound as if he is on the side of families that risk losing their livelihoods through unnecessarily harsh Conservative cuts and that have little asset wealth to fall back on. This is the “squeezed middle”. The risks are highest in the south, where there are higher house-price-to-earnings ratios, and where inequality is so great that you need a fair amount of asset wealth behind you to avoid the risk of joining the new poor: those who lose their homes due to sudden unemployment, and subsequently cannot afford to get back on the social ladder. If Miliband wants to see an equal society, he should start here.
Inequality in the south of Britain is now so bad, and life so consequently insecure, that it dominates everything: people’s choice of schools, where they live and how unaffordably high their mortgages are. It even affects fertility, as parents must wait longer until they can afford a home in which to have children.
In the north-east, there are 77 births a year per 1,000 women aged 20-24; in the north-west, 81. But in the south-east, that falls to 65. Between the ages of 25 and 35, the south gradually overtakes the north, until among 35- to 39-year-olds there are 64 births per 1,000 women in the south-east, but 44 in the north-east (2008 figures).
Admittedly, slightly more people are working in the south, and there is also known to be a correlation between the age of first giving birth and education – but unless you believe that everyone in the north is uneducated and unemployed, and everyone in the south is jolly clever, this is unlikely to explain such a clear pattern. More likely, women in the south put off having children because both parents need to work in order to buy (or rent) somewhere to live.
The last time I wrote about the squeezed middle classes, a reader wrote a letter to the New Statesman sneering at the notion that they might merit any sympathy. That sneer is a mistake, because there are millions of them, not only in the south – and these are the people who can win Labour the next election. The biggest swings to the Conservatives in 2010 were in the places where the richest live – in southern and eastern England and parts of the Midlands – places where extremes of wealth and poverty are greatest. There are a lot of very socially and financially insecure people in the middle: Broken Britain voted Tory. (It also voted BNP.)
There is plenty of support within Labour for policies that actually might win an election. The younger Miliband told the conference, Blair-like, that they ain’t gonna like much of what he’s gonna say – but actually it won’t be because he’s not left-wing enough. Look at the voting figures: the members didn’t vote for Ed, they voted for David. They backed the “right-winger”. Fortunately, Ed is not as left-wing as he has been portrayed, just as David is not as New Labour as some have painted him.
The growing intergenerational inequality in asset wealth that we have in Britain affects us all; but it affects people struggling in the middle more than it affects those who are entitled to social housing. In more and more areas of southern England, where the very wealthy buy or rent second homes, and no new houses are being built, many working families already know that they won’t ever be able to buy their own house.
It’s a pattern that began in London, where increasingly you must be very rich or very poor to be housed. Where I live, in the rural south, many families rely on what is basically charity from privately owned country estates. Feeling an obligation to help house poorer local families that are not eligible for social housing, they rent out cottages to them at reasonable, below-market, rates. But the waiting list is long.
There is so much space here for Miliband to occupy. It wouldn’t be recognised by most of the media, because they inhabit the world of the rich. What Miliband should do is to offer a safety net for the people who are scared for their families under the forthcoming assault by the Conservatives; the current welfare system will not do. Never mind for a moment the level of welfare for the long-term unemployed and incapacitated, there needs to be a proper safety net reintroduced for the threatened middle, the middle poor – whatever you want to call them – to save them from these new social risks.
The Conservative cuts will threaten their livelihoods, plunging families into crisis, and Labour needs to have a response that supports them. It must protect their homes and pay a sufficient level of welfare to see them through to a new job. They manage it in the US. That, after all, is what the welfare state was conceived for, not to subsidise lethargy. At the conference, Miliband cited William Beveridge as a politician he admired; he should start from there.
I see little sign that anyone in the Conservative Party is contemplating the fundamental rethink of welfare that we need in Britain (though Nick Clegg has hinted at it). They have nothing to say about the people they are about to hurt – real people with real families that have worked hard. Labour, with its fresh leader and with voters’ interested eyes upon him, has a chance to speak to them instead. But it cannot wait or sit out a rambling journey. Ed Miliband has less than three weeks.