5 ways Labour can talk about the cost of living (without talking about energy)


It’s just over a month since Ed Miliband’s conference speech, and since then the media narrative has been dominated by his proposal for a freeze on energy prices and the spiralling profits of the energy companies. However, it’s important to remember that Miliband’s message was always meant to be about cost of living in general – of which energy prices are just one (albeit salient) part. Thanks in no small part to the greed of energy bosses who have hiked their prices in recent weeks, the issue has stayed at the top of the news bulletins, but it can’t stay there forever. And after five successive PMQs on energy, it’d be preferable for Ed not to push his luck and go for the half dozen.

So what else could Labour say on the cost of living in the run up to 2015? Here are five things the party could try:

Transport costs: There’s a debate raging about whether or not we should throw £40 billion+ at HS2 so that expensive rail tickets can be sold to those who want to get around slightly quicker (I’m sceptical, can you tell?). Meanwhile capacity on commuter lines is poor, rolling stock is often antiquated and prices for season tickets are comical. If the rail network was taken back under public control then the profits returned to the exchequer could improve the network capacity/quality and/or cut fares. Similarly, petrol costs are a massive squeeze on family budgets – and whilst there’s a case for green taxes on petrol, too often fuel duty else like a way to swindle a bit more cash out of the motorist. A fuel duty cut would be a powerful message that we understand the concerns of ordinary people.

Housing: Build more houses. At present we have a small few making a bundle on the buy to let market, whilst rents soar and house prices fly well out of reach for so many people. George Osborne’s frankly crackers help to buy scheme increases demand but not supply. As any fool knows, that’s not going to deal with the fact that we don’t have enough homes, or the cost of those homes – it’s going to make it worse. It’s deliberate bubble inflation.

Market failure: A market that has genuine competition tends to work well for consumers, driving down prices and providing choice. But as Miliband has noted in the energy market that’s not the case – everything is dominated by the Big Six. And the same goes for so much of our daily essentials. If a handful of people in a handful of supermarkets want to jack up prices, then they can, and the cost is passed on to the consumer. No-ones ideal version of a market has 3/4 supermarkets controlling the vast majority of food the country consumes, but at the moment that’s where we are. And that’s just one example of daily costs we all face that are out of our hands – and in the hands of a small number of businesses. Choice? What choice.

Living wage: this one is simple – let’s make the minimum wage the living wage, as I’ve argued before. There’s no excuse for paying people poverty wages, so let’s put an end to it.

Council Tax: Almost certainly the most hated tax of all, because you have to pay it directly out of your wages, and most of us – even those who are actively involved in local politics – struggle at times to explain what it’s spent on. Local government is facing the brunt of government cuts yet raising council tax is often seen as political suicide. Add in the fact that it’s based on an outdated categorisation of houses and has no basis on ability to pay, it’s probably ripe for reform. So why wouldn’t Labour adopt what always seemed to be a (very sensible) Lib Dem policy – a local income tax, based on ability to pay? Combine that with a shift in what is paid for by local government vs central government (and how it’s paid) – National Care Service is one example – and suddenly we might be able to do things in a cheaper, more explicable and more equitable manner.

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