The squeezed middle is real
This week has seen Labour’s latest soundbite demographic come under fresh scrutiny. Raising living standards of the ‘squeezed middle’ is the focus of the Resolution Foundation’s cross-party commission launched yesterday. Today the term was dismissed by the Chancellor who pointed out that, by Ed Miliband’s definition, it covers 90 per cent of the population.
The squeezed middle may well be vague, as George Osborne pointed out, but that doesn’t make it meaningless nonsense. Just as David Cameron’s phrase de jour – the Big Society – has been derided despite its intellectual strength, so the squeezed middle deserves our attention even as it is mocked from the sidelines. For who can argue that standards of living for the middle classes have not fallen during the recession? Or that deficit reduction will not place fresh burdens on middle earners who are already both financially stretched and suffering withdrawal from the once cheap credit to which access is now, firmly, denied? Britain’s middle class will have to get used to life trimmed of the little luxuries once taken for granted – from the child benefit they used as an income supplement to the almost free higher education their offspring enjoyed. This will be a wrench and, whilst many of the measures affecting the middle classes are necessary and desirable, it will have political consequences. It is surely then right that, as Liam Byrne and Ed Miliband have been trying to do, politicians identify and engage with fresh problems that are facing many more people than before.
Tony Blair famously expressed his belief that we ‘are all middle class’. If George Osborne’s diagnosis of the issues with the Labour ‘squeezed middle’ definition is accurate, then, to some extent, it goes to show how right our former PM was. People who earn well and work hard expect to be rewarded for their effort – increasingly a toxic combination of increased living costs and stagnant real wages means that they are simply treading water. This problem may be widespread but that does not make it less pertinent or less dangerous. Of course, a more precise definition of this middle would be useful– so that the varied starting points of £11,000 a year, £16,000 a year and more can be harmonised – but equally vital is an honest and open discussion of what can be done to either manage, or meet, the expectations of a large body of people who feel let down and down-trodden by our new economic reality. Dismissing attempts to do so, as if this giant and troubled group is too large to deal with or too diverse to answer to, is politically foolish and intellectually weak. The squeezed middle is real – its membership deserves answers about what their future will hold rather than glib partisan jibes.