Britain’s cost-of-living crisis means that for some, ‘getting by’ will become a luxury | Frances Ryan

JThe thing about governments in crisis is that they have little time to govern. Boris Johnson – once king of the world, now lame duck – is a prime minister plagued by his own survival. Insiders say Johnson is motivated to cling to power not to deliver a pressing political agenda but to beat former Bullingdon Club pal David Cameron: ‘He won’t accept that Etonian’s last Prime Minister outlived him.’ Meanwhile, in the real world, British families are about to suffer the worst cost of living crisis for 30 years and are waiting for anyone in power to take notice.

For many, the money going out is about to skyrocket, so the money coming in is shrinking in real terms. Inflation hit 5.4% last month, driven by more expensive food and clothing. Energy tariffs are rising and tax bills are also expected to rise. At the same time, the Universal Credit increase of £20 has been reduced and unemployment benefits are set to reach their lowest real value for more than three decades, a rate which call for experts “only a little more than misery”. Ministers may claim that work is the solution, but good jobs, not just any jobs, are the respite; the majority of people living in poverty in the UK last year were in worker households. The official line may be that the pandemic is over, but that too is still hitting personal finances – just ask the clinically vulnerable retiree sheltering in a cold house. The upshot of all this is pretty clear: simply getting by will increasingly become a luxury.

Today’s release social security commission report – the result of a two-year initiative to sketch out proposals for a better benefits system led by claimants themselves – outlines the kind of ideas that could make a real difference right now. After a decade of pernicious and diminished social support, the report makes some useful suggestions. It proposes scrapping Universal Credit and replacing it with a ‘guaranteed decent income for all’, set at 50% of the minimum wage (£163.50 a week); the end of sanctions on benefits; and ending the use of social security as a band-aid for failures elsewhere by scrapping zero-hours contracts and introducing free early childhood education and care.

The concern here is not that Boris Johnson would never introduce such solutions – no surprise – but that his government is barely engaged with the issue. Ask a minister what is the most pressing problem facing “families struggling to make ends meet”, and it’s not a worn-out benefits system, energy bills, rising food prices or precarious work – it’s the BBC license fee. What low-income people will spend on average 18% of this income (after housing costs) on energy bills from April is not seen by this government as an imminent threat, but as an inconsequential sideshow.

The crisis facing the British right now is not just that millions of people cannot afford the basics, it is that their leaders have no intention of helping them. Or even pretending to. It’s a remarkable situation once you really start thinking about it, even though it’s nothing new. People in this country have been skipping meals and wearing coats in their front rooms for quite some time, and no one has noticed either. The difference now, perhaps, is that such events will not be limited to the working class. Middle-class families who managed before could soon be plunged into financial difficulties, while those who were already struggling will fall into abject poverty.

Politics is often seen through the prism of the Westminster drama, a spectacle never quite so clear as the latest Tory scramble for power. We are led to believe that is all that matters, that it is normal to devote more attention to the wine that the staff at No 10 pack in a suitcase than to the fact that many parents do not have the ways to put food in the cupboard. Johnson clearly believes in it himself to a large degree, seeing power as a game and the rest of us as pawns. But politics – real politics – is not defined by the showy maneuvers of a few at the top; it is defined by the ordinary question of whether a teacher can afford to turn on the heating in winter.

It’s these mundane issues that just seem to annoy Johnson and the public school alumni around him. The fact that staples such as eggs, butter and milk are seeing price hikes may not be a glamorous fact to ponder, but they will be part of the biggest problem this country will face in the coming months. The fact that neither the labor market nor the social security system is fit to weather the storm is not only a deep concern for the future, but a hard lesson from the mistakes of the past.

The solution to this will not be found by another Tory sitting in Downing Street, or perhaps even by a change of party. What is needed above all is to recognize that this country is crying out for radical change and that playing by the same economic rules will not get us there. It means shifting power from Westminster to communities, a rejuvenated modern welfare state and a media willing to hold charlatans to account rather than help them get elected. Until then, millions of people in Britain will find themselves below the poverty line. The cost of living with Boris Johnson as Prime Minister is too high.

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