Nicky Morgan is Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, a former Education Secretary, and MP for Loughborough.
On Saturday morning, just after the ConservativeHome editor and I had discussed this column, I was out knocking on doors in Loughborough. Although we don’t have local elections this May, we are still engaged in regular canvassing and resident survey sessions. And as we can see from Brandon Lewis’s Twitter feed, so are hundreds of Conservative Party activists across the country every weekend – a very cheering sight.
At my first door, I met a couple who were both working and juggling bringing up three children. He works in the private sector, and she works in the NHS, so last week’s news about a pay increase for those working in the NHS was very welcome. However, he said, balancing their personal finances still felt like an almighty struggle, and they still felt other people were getting more help than them.
We discussed how the public sector pay cap and wage stagnation in other sectors had affected everyone’s income in the past decade, how the current rate of inflation led to increases in everyday living costs and bills and how working age benefits had been frozen. My constituent told that his employer had started to increase wages, but how his personal situation had only been alleviated in recent years by the promotions, and higher salaries, he had been able to secure.
Whatever we might want to talk about on the doorsteps, the cost of living and people’s personal financial situations are still uppermost in their minds. That is one of the reasons I wanted the Treasury Select Committee to look at household finances.
We should not be avoiding this policy area. Last week, the Department of Work and Pensions released figures which show that income inequality is not growing. In spite of what the Labour Party would like voters to believe, there has been a fifth year of growth in median income; the proportion of people living in poverty has remained stable (still more to do there, of course) and rising employment has helped to boost the incomes of poorer households. Next month, will see the latest income tax threshold rise and increases in the National Living Wage and National Minimum Wage. We have the joint highest employment rate since records began. All of this is positive news for the nation’s households, and the Conservative Party must make more of it. As a start, it has been good to see the Prime Minister’s twitter account announcing that ‘one million people have been lifted out of absolute poverty since 2010′.
As I wrote in my last column on this site, some of the most underutilised developments recently have been that the Government’s day to day spending is finally in balance, that we are borrowing less as a country and that our national debt is beginning to fall as a share of GDP.
One of the great mysteries of the 2017 election campaign was that we said almost nothing about the economy. And yet, just two years earlier, we were re-elected because people realised that there was still more to do to help it recover from the financial crisis and to put ourselves back on a sound footing, and they wanted a Conservative Government to do it.
There is a suspicion that current Ministers feel that we said enough about the economy and our Long Term Economic Plan between 2010 and 2015, and that we want to talk about other things – and a significant amount of attention is of course already being consumed by Brexit. That would be a mistake.
Ministers need to be very clear that announcements such as that on NHS pay or on recruiting more midwives can only be made because we are building an economy that works for everyone. And they also need to say that, whatever final Brexit deal is achieved, it will not undermine our stewardship of the economy any more than a change in our business climate and trading relationships will inevitably do.
In the same way that New Labour used to talk about ‘schools and hospitals’, we need to get everyone in the Party, nationally and locally, talking about ‘jobs and security’. We’ve got a good story to tell on the economy, and no one else is going to tell it for us.