Ed Miliband has put great stock in renewing what he calls 'The British Promise'. Essentially, it is the idea that each generation should enjoy a higher standard of living than the generation who went before. It is a noble goal for a Labour politician to espouse, but of course this promise broke down under New Labour.
Let us take the basic aspiration of having a partner and a child. In the UK, that costs more than £20,000 a year if you work. That seems a startlingly large figure and of course it is. But according to the Office of National Statistics the average household spends more that £3k a year on transport, and £4k a year on household costs such as insurance, maintenance, fuel and electricity. Added to that the £7-8k costs of a mortgage or renting, as well as the £5k annual crèche fees (based on 1 child for 25 hours a week), then you have reached the staggering figure of £20,000 per year. Worryingly, that figure excludes the cost of food, drink, clothing, footwear, phone, internet, gym, pub, restaurant, holiday, dental, and spending on books etc.
If one considers the recent rises in inflation, the stagnation of wages and the soaring costs of fuel and renting, then you quickly form the impression that living conditions are worsening not improving. In fact, prices are currently growing twice as quick as people's wage packets. But that's not the worst of it. According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies 50% of UK households have, after tax, an income of less than £20k. That means that the basic promise of a job, home and family is a struggle for the majority of UK households. And that is the nub of it, in twenty-first century Britain the basic goal of working and raising a small family is unobtainable to the majority of the nation.
Against this backdrop one must consider the damage caused by the New Labour aspirational rhetoric that claimed we were okay with the 'filthy rich' or that we were 'all middle class now'. The stigmatisation of the blue collar worker and the obsession with promoting economic aspiration, and an image of affluence, were the cardinal sins of the New Labour project. And the consequences today are stark. In 2011, household debt surpasses total GDP and is set to grow to £2.5 trillion by the time of the next election. So too, obesity levels and instances of depression have grown rapidly so much so that doctors now prescribe 45 million courses of anti-depressants per year. That's a 50% rise since 2006. Most major mental health charities have found a clear link between financial stress and depression. These failures of New Labour will be felt for generations.
There is a solution and fortunately for Labour Ed Miliband gets that. A new economic model that places the affordability of childcare, housing and transport as its cornerstones will be the fig leaf offered by Labour at the next election. Let us hope that that will include the promise of a living wage and investment in renewable energy. But in the meantime let us start by admitting we are not all middle class now, nor are we alright with the filthy rich.