Wonganomics: Cameron, Conference and the ‘Cost of Living Crisis’

James Ford

Listening to the Prime Minister’s conference speech last Wednesday, the casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that the ‘land of opportunity’ he spoke about was a different country to the one Ed Miliband discussed a week earlier.

Whereas the Labour Leader outlined radical policies on energy prices and developers’ land banks to address the ‘cost of living crisis’, Cameron opted instead to talk in more general terms about expanding property ownership, tax cuts and aspiration.

At a strategic level, this was a deliberate choice by the Prime Minister to attempt to frame the political debate. If he had picked up the gauntlet thrown down by Ed Miliband and spoken about – or even merely used the phrase – the ‘cost of living crisis’, he would have allowed Labour to frame the debate leading up to the election, and for them to frame it in terms favourable to their cause. The PM also wanted to avoid his speech being interpreted as a response to Miliband (one of the perils of the Conservatives always following Labour in the conference cycle).

One potential stumbling block to this approach is that the ‘cost of living crisis’ has traction as a political idea and touches upon one of the Conservatives’ serious weaknesses. Polling by Lord Ashcroft – published at the start of conference – shows that while the Conservatives enjoy a healthy lead over Labour on most key issues (such as competent, united, clear ideas, and good team of leaders), they lag a long way behind on one measure: ‘for everyone’. On this measure, Labour poll at 55% to the Conservatives’ 29%. Clearly the perception that the Conservatives are a party for the wealthy persists, undermining their ability to convince the electorate that they empathise with the public on how austerity is hitting ordinary people’s pockets.

However, there was evidence at conference that a Conservative response to the ‘cost of living crisis’ may be emerging. As well as fringe events on what we might consider ‘the usual suspects’ of Conservative politics – Europe, public service reform, and crime reduction – there were more unusual topics being debated and discussed. The IEA described the cost of living as ‘the new battleground’.  BALPA, the pilots’ union, asked ‘Can you be a Conservative and a Trade Unionist?’ while the Centre for Social Justice debated how to tackle child poverty. Specifically on the cost of living, Robert Halfon MP (the backbencher that led calls to freeze fuel duty) addressed a Resolution Foundation event linking living standards to the next election, Reform and the StepChange debt charity discussed ‘A lifetime on debt row?’, and an Oxfam fringe questioned if the rise of food banks was a sign of hope or failure. The TUC investigated Conservative approaches to boosting low pay while The High Pay Centre posed the question ‘can the Conservatives ever be the party of fair pay?’ And there was even a nod to Wonga.com and the on-going debate over pay day lending with ResPublica, the ‘Red Tory’ think tank, asking if payday loans at 4000% were ever in the consumer interest.

It remains to be seen how far this interest in debt, pay, food banks, and the cost of living will permeate within the party, and how enthusiastically it will be embraced by the leadership. The rumour circulating the bar of the Midland Hotel was that the Chancellor may well address the cost of living in his Autumn Statement, perhaps even outlining measures to freeze or reduce rail fares. The challenge for Conservative strategists is to create a credible proposition to tackle the ‘cost of living crisis’ without entering a bidding war with Labour, conceding to Labour arguments over austerity and the economy, or drawing further attention to the privileged backgrounds of many members of the Cabinet.

James Ford is a senior adviser to PLMR. He previously worked as an aide to Mayor Boris Johnson between 2010 and 2012, specialising in transport, environment and digital policy.

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