Describing the Conservative vision for Britain in a keynote speech last January, chancellor George Osborne stated it was all about "securing a better economic future for hard-working families". It's a simple but effective message that the Conservative Party have honed over the last four years. It's a message Osborne is pretty much nailed on to return to on Budget day this Wednesday. Who's going to disagree with it? Only the Monster Raving Loonies would support a better economic future for "lazy families".
Given that the Conservatives seem to have staked out such a popular ground, the question is: how should opposition parties respond? Labour's approach has been to attack the Conservative's ability to deliver on their promises. They've pointed to the numbers of people in in-work poverty, the tax cut Osborne introduced to top-earners, and the Coalition's failure to clamp-down on rising energy prices as evidence that the Conservatives can talk-the-talk on helping hard-working families but only Labour can walk-the-walk.
The problem with this approach is that it only helps to promote the Conservative's ideology. The hard-working families rhetoric is political territory the Tories have already monopolised - voters are hardly going to be inspired by a party that copies and pastes that rhetoric, only adding a "...but we can do it better" addendum at the end.
There is, however, a more fundamental problem with this approach. The tactic also fails to interrogate the basic underlying principles of what a Conservative vision of "hard-working families" means for Britain.
From the entirely representative sample of the people I share my train journey to work with every morning, I get the sense that the pressures of British working life are not contributing to a cheery existence. It seems my fellow passengers are not alone. A recent poll by the mental health charity Mind found that two-thirds of British workers experience the "Sunday Blues" anxiety triggered by the thought of going back to work on Monday. Many turn to alcohol or comfort-eating to try and soften the blow. According to Gallup's State of the Global Workplace 2013 survey, just 17% of UK workers feel "engaged" by the their job.
It's hardly surprising when one considers what "hard-working life" in Britain looks like. We work the third longest hours in the whole of the European Union - only behind Greece and Austria. It's hard to feel engaged by your job when you're chained to it for 10 hours or more a day. The result is that "family-time" is becoming a thing of the past. One in five parents of children aged 6-10 believe they are so stretched by work that they only give their child full attention "once a week". For a more balanced life we have to look enviously over at Scandinavian waters: Danes work the shortest hours in Europe and according to the UN's World Happiness Report they are the happiest nation in the world.
Not only should we question what the Conservative vision of a hard-working society looks like in reality, we should also remember who is evangelising it and why. When it comes to work and family backgrounds the Coalition cabinet could not be more unrepresentative of the run-of-the-mill British family. Whilst five million people in the UK currently earn less than the Living Wage, the combined wealth of the UK's 29 cabinet members is £70 million. Come on guys, check your privilege. With money in the bank, our political leaders are never going to feel the effects of a benefit cut here or a drop in public investment there. Getting us all on-side with the "hard-working families rhetoric" allows the Conservatives to palm off responsibility from the government to individuals and their families, stripping away the last vestiges of state support in the process. "Sorry, can't afford your rent since we introduced the Bedroom Tax? You're just not working hard enough".
As an alternative to the "hard-working families" narrative we should instead be calling for the "humanisation of work" as described by the economist E.F. Schumacher. What this means in practice is a total change in priorities - away from encouraging work for work's sake and over to restoring family life, leisure time, and ensuring that the reason we get up every day is not to clock-in at the grindstone for another ten hours but to feel happy, content and gratified in what we do. Shorter working hours, flexible work and a Living Wage are just some of the bolts that could help to transform the economy but what we must do first is challenge the assumptions that underline Tory rhetoric. Leisure-time, family-life and rewarding-work all need to become a part of our political lexicon. Otherwise, the Tory's divisive and destructive economic outlook risks becoming a societal norm.