Visiting a merchant’s yard to meet shift workers loading trucks just over six years ago, Nick Clegg introduced the phrase “alarm clock Britain” to political dialogue. It represented a section of society who rose from their beds before sunrise and headed off to work. They would have modest living standards but find day-to-day life ever more difficult with pay freezes and job losses.
Ed Miliband hoped to represent a similar demographic – the “squeezed middle” – while Clegg’s coalition partner David Cameron settled for “hard working families”.
Each political party leader has their own and Theresa May has not parted from the trend. “Just about managing” is the freshest soundbite in SW1 – and one hapless civil servants have been banned from turning into the acronym JAMs for shorthand.
Promising to “fight the burning injustices” in Britain, May addressed those who were “just about managing” directly on her first day in power, adding: “I know you’re working around the clock, I know you’re doing your best and I know that sometimes life can be a struggle. The Government I lead will be driven, not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours.” In the absence of any formal, income based definition of the “just about managing”, other organisations have defined May’s vague vision for her.
“The trouble is,” remarked one senior Conservative MP, “most people think they’re just about managing”.
The Resolution Foundation suggests it includes the almost six million households with below-average incomes, spread right across the UK and concentrated in areas as diverse as Pendle in Lancashire, Sandwell in the Midlands and North Devon.
But, so far, her administration has delivered little to help these people to stop the “just about managing” becoming unable to manage. While Comrade Corbyn filled the vacuum of the parliamentary recess by committing news in the form of a blitz of policy announcements, on the domestic front the Government seemed to be undergoing a collective vow of silence – with the exception of grammar schools, which are unlikely to benefit the children of the “just about managing” according to the educational charity the Sutton Trust.
The overwhelming hurdle of Brexit – along with all its constitutional difficulties – appears to have consumed May’s administration, putting the “just about managing” on the backburner. Recent reports suggest plans to cut Britain’s energy bills have been hold for weeks. A new analysis by Thomson Reuters suggests the number of new laws introduced in the last year is at its lowest level for 20 years.
Citizens Advice, who are more than familiar with the problems faced by the “just about managing”, have identified a number of ways in which May could make day-to-day life less of a struggle for these people. They suggest tackling aggressive or inflexible debt collection practices, in both the public and private sector, which risk turning the just managing into not managing overnight.
They add that problems with pay and work entitlements such as sick pay have made the irregular incomes of the “just about managing” even more so.
Ending the arbitrary four-year freeze on working-age benefits would be another welcome step for the “just about managing”. It would ensure that benefits – used to top up low incomes – would keep pace with food prices as they rise and higher than expected inflation. An analysis for The Independent shows that Treasury officials have underestimated the effects of the four-year freeze by around £4bn, meaning the impact on thousands of low income families across Britain will be much more severe than previously anticipated.
In normal circumstances the annual uprating of benefits and tax credits each April would offset the losses from a weak pound, price rises, and the economic turbulence created by the Brexit vote. But the four-year freeze transfers the burden onto the “just about managing” – and Hammond, who was just about managing after his chaotic budget last month, is showing no signs of relaxing the policy.
A separate report today found that rises that were forecast for average real wages have been revised down by £1,200.
Taking these findings together, it is now no easy task to find May’s championing of the “just about managing” in Tory policy. It has been 277 days since the phrase was proclaimed outside the door of 10 Downing Street and, so far, it remains nothing more than a soundbite. The question now is whether it will suffer the same fate as Clegg’s “alarm clock Britain”.