This morning I listened to Ed Milliband being interviewed on the Today programme on Radio 4. He said, unsurprisingly perhaps, that he wanted a society that was fair, gave opportunity to all, enable people, etc, etc. All non-controversial, comforting and designed not to frighten the horses. The interview then went on to discuss the group known as the “squeezed middle”. Mr Milliband said he wanted to help them but, when pressed, could not give neither a consistent, or coherent, definition of whose the people are. Readers can hear the excerpt and see further commentary here http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-11848303
He seemed to want to define the squeezed middle on the grounds of income. What made me do a double take was when he said: ““Well, I’m a bit confused now, I’m saying it’s above £26,000 and below and you’re talking about the poor. I’m talking about the people either side.”I don’t know about Ed but I was confused too! Does he really mean somebody earning £13k a year is a part of this group? How about £26k, £46k, £60k and so on- are they the squeezed middle too? BBC Research reckons this definition covers 88% of the adult population. I would say 88% cannot constitute a middle by any reasonable definition. Milliband offered alternative definitions – 6 in total according to the Conservatives – which merely muddied the waters further.
Listeners could be charitable and put the flap down to some fairly intensive questioning. However, this lack of clarity is important. If the Leader of the Labour Party is trying to formulate policy and cannot define who he wants to help the most by those policies then who can? I think it does not bode well for credible opposition economic policies. At a time when the Coalition have credible, albeit unpopular, policies on reducing the fiscal deficit by reducing the public sector, charging undergraduate tuition fees and so on we need an Opposition which can offer lucid counter-arguments. It is untenable to say that nearly 90% of the population are being so squeezed that their life-chances are being significantly compromised by Coalition policies. A rise in living costs like VAT, food and fuel impacts much more on a low-income family than one earning a significantly higher income.
At the present, Labour are leading in the opinion polls but vague statements of intent like Mr Milliband’s today will allow the Coalition to go on the offensive now and give the impression that Labour are dithering. Come 3 or 4 years down the line this perception will come back to haunt Labour. Even if the fiscal deficit is not reduced by as much as planned the Coalition will be able to argue on the lines of “Well, its no use you lot whining because you didn’t have a clue what to do, at least we’ve done something”.
So, who are the squeezed middle anyway? My impression is that any household with total income of less than £25k belongs in the squeezed poor, one with a total income of £26-40k the fairly squeezed, one with a total income of £80k, (or more) the relatively unscathed rich leaving the squeezed middle to be in the £40-80k bracket. But, then again, I might be confusing income with social class.