I increasingly wonder why the cost of living crisis isn’t the defining issue of UK politics. We have seen the longest period of wage stagnation since the Napoleonic wars which means a real terms cut for most when inflation is factored in. Furthermore as Anna Minton points out on loc 592 of Big Capital the real picture is much worse because the CPI measure excludes housing and inadequately includes rents (over-representing social housing which by its nature is always cheaper than the private rental market):
If the price of food had increased at the same rate as house prices in the UK over the last forty years, then today a chicken would cost more than £50. 4 As average house prices in London are more than twice those in the rest of the country, if food prices had tracked house price inflation, in London that chicken would cost £100. High rates of inflation in the 1970s were among the factors that propelled Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives to power in 1979, and since then low inflation has been a source of economic pride for successive governments. But while food, clothes, furniture, cars and holidays are all included in the government’s preferred inflation index, the Consumer Prices Index (CPI), house prices are not, nor are rents accurately reflected. So inflation in UK housing, which has increased by 166 per cent since the 1970s and an eye-watering 513 per cent in London, compared, for example, with Germany, where it has been virtually stable, is treated differently from every other form of inflation because it has been stripped out of official records.
Why isn’t this a bigger issue? One reason is that almost 1 in 5 MPs are landlords whom I suspect are over-represented amongst ministers. But the other more theoretically interesting factor is the individualised roots of escape from the cost of living crisis. Firstly, house price inflation means that if you own a house then the value of it has been rising faster than inflation leading to a real terms increase in your wealth, if not your income. Secondly, particularly if the cost of living crisis is experienced as a diffuse sense of tightening financial constraint rather than a political issue which can be understood analytically, promotion and advancement are likely to be experienced as a visceral sense of that constraint loosening, at least temporarily.
In this sense a significant portion of the population can experience themselves as outrunning the cost of living crisis in a way which makes it a confrontation with it as a political issue much less likely than might otherwise be the case. In retrospect I realise that this is what Bauman was talking about the liquid modernity books as the decline of collectivities which can mediate politics, leaving it an individual matter of how to evade systemic challenges which otherwise be experienced in terms of collective interests and collective action to protect and act on those interests.