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The Cost of Living Election Battle Has Already Started

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At the close of the first party conference of the season, the Liberal Democrats have set the pace on the theme that is set to become the top issue ahead of the general election - the cost of living.

Which? consumer insight research shows that while consumers are increasingly confident about the economic outlook, millions continue to feel under financial pressure. And we've been out on the streets of Glasgow filming people's views on the costs that worry them most, playing these on a giant Which? screen in the conference centre daily.

Rising food, fuel and energy costs consistently come top of consumers' financial worries; and we are increasingly seeing people getting into debt or using credit to pay for essentials like food and household bills. Large numbers of households have no financial buffer to draw on if they're hit by an unexpected expense.

There is no doubt that those gathered in Glasgow had this front of mind. One very senior Lib Dem told me that the cost of living is now "easily the number one issue". Others recognised that - although the party has some eye-catching individual policies - they have only recently realised the need to work this into a bigger narrative.

So we've seen a string of announcements throughout the conference that speak to this agenda. A cap on pensions fees from Steve Webb; help for consumers ripped off by rogue company directors from Vince Cable; and a pleasant surprise from the Consumer Minister Jo Swinson who announced two reviews aimed at "helping people with spiralling living costs".

One of these reviews promises a crackdown on excessive mobile phone roaming charges, and a Telecoms Consumer Action Plan to give consumers better advice and information when looking at the best deals. The other will see how people can be helped to get a better deal from insurance companies.

But where people are feeling the squeeze most is their energy bills.

At the conference I discussed this with Energy Secretary Ed Davey and Ian Peters of British Gas: are consumers getting are getting a fair deal or a raw deal when it comes to energy?

Hard pressed households have been hit with inflation-busting price rises, seen eye-watering profit announcements and remain bamboozled by the array of different energy tariffs on offer.

The Energy Secretary was bullish about the measures he is introducing to reform energy tariffs, to control the costs of new energy infrastructure, and to enable small suppliers to enter the market. But pressed on whether he would go further if these reforms don't succeed, he insisted that there was 'nothing ruled out'.

All this culminated, of course, in the promise of free dinners for infant school children. As Nick Clegg said:

"Millions of parents across the country are feeling the squeeze... I am determined to do all we can to put money back in the pockets of these families."

Expect more of this from Labour and the Conservatives in the coming fortnight.

The cost of living election battle has already started.

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