This week the respected, politically independent think tank the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) issued two reports which together serve as a searing indictment of the Tory-led government’s record.
The first report projected that median household incomes in 2014-15 were 2% below where they were in 2009-10 under Labour. Contrary to George Osborne’s statement that the country is “fundamentally in a better position than it was five years ago”, this year’s election is set to be the first since the 1920s when average incomes fell from one election to the next.
The second report, published today, highlighted the disproportionate impact that government cuts to local authority funding have had in places like Islington, finding that since 2010 London councils saw average cuts in spending per head of more than £200, more than twice the cuts inflicted on the more affluent South East of England.
The IFS noted that “low-income families have faced higher than average inflation” and “were hit harder by rising food and energy prices”. And young people were, as has so often been the case under this government, hit the hardest: average incomes for 22-30 year olds fell by 7.6% in the last five years – almost four times the rate across all age groups.
As an MP, I am constantly meeting people at my surgeries who struggle to make ends meet – dealing with a triple whammy of stagnating wages, punitive benefit cuts and skyrocketing costs for basic essentials like housing and fuel.
All of this could have been avoided if the government had taken a different course.
Earlier this week I spoke in a debate in Parliament, highlighting the impact the affordable housing crisis has had in my constituency. The average house price in Islington is more than treble the national average, and the average one bedroom flat costs a staggering £1,642 per month to rent. And this is while regressive policies like the benefit cap – which fails to take into account a much higher cost of living in places like Islington – have inflicted more damage in my constituency than almost anywhere else in the country.
And as everyone knows, energy bills are equally out of control these days. New figures uncovered this week by Labour’s Shadow Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Caroline Flint MP, showed that 75% of households are paying up to £250 a year more than their supplier’s cheapest tariff would cost them. Two years ago David Cameron promised to legislate to force energy companies to put all customers on the lowest tariff. He has never followed through on this, despite reiterating the pledge in the House of Commons no fewer than 17 times.
So this election is an opportunity, and Labour has announced an ambitious set of plans to turn the cost of living crisis around. We’ve announced plans to build 200,000 houses a year by 2020, helping create more affordable homes for Londoners. We would also reform the private rented sector to stop landlords and agencies from ripping tenants off with high fees and threatening them with eviction when they raise concerns about poor conditions.
We will also freeze energy prices until 2017 and give regulators the power to force energy suppliers to cut prices for consumers.
And on local government funding, where Islington’s leaders have helped mitigate the impact of the cuts by cutting the Chief Executive’s salary by £50,000 and making other efficiency savings to protect frontline services, the next Labour government will distribute funding much more fairly, based on need, and provide councils with long term funding settlements to allow forward-thinking local authorities like Islington to plan ahead to protect the services local people most rely on.
Whatever benchmark you use to judge a government’s record, this week’s news that people are worse off today than they were five years ago is likely to be the message that resonates most this May.