Will Theresa May’s ‘just about managing families’ fall for the rhetoric? | Sonia Sodha

The prime minister wants to convince her newly discovered Jams she’s on their side. But the way the autumn statement’s shaping up suggests otherwise

First it was “hard-working families”, the political cliche attributed to Gordon Brown in 1995 that has been peppered over the speeches of politicians from both main parties ever since. Then Ed Miliband introduced the idea of the “squeezed middle”. Nick Clegg gave “alarm-clock Britain” a go, though it never really took off. Now we have a new soundbite for that group of people somewhere in between the poorest and most affluent in society: the “just about managing”.

“Just about managing” families – or “Jams” as they’ve come to be known – have featured prominently in Theresa May’s rhetoric since she became prime minister. We’ve been told making their lives easier will be a top priority for her government. They look set to be a key theme in Wednesday’s autumn statement.

Who are the Jams? One of the first uses was in a paper published by the thinktank Policy Exchange last year. Its author, James Frayne, defines them as C1/C2 families: lower middle class and upper working class families, around half of all households in Britain. He characterises them as families who manage to get by, but who have low resilience to economic shocks such as rising inflation and interest rates. In other words, they are likely to be hit hard by Brexit’s economic headwinds.

The government itself has been much vaguer. That’s unsurprising: politicians have always been reluctant to crisply define terms such as “hard-working families”, through fear of becoming a hostage to fortune. Who could forget Ed Miliband’s toe-curling interview with John Humphreys where he struggled to define the “squeezed middle”?

That’s because politicians like to use these terms as a rhetorical device, not as distinct categories government departments could use when analysing the impact of their policies on specific groups. The less nebulous the prime minister is about who qualifies as Jam, the more people she excludes. She wants anyone feeling some sort of pinch in the wake of the financial crisis to feel like she’s addressing them.

As politically tempting as these sort of rhetorical devices may be, there are dangers that come with using them. When politicians fail to define their terms, others will step in to fill the gap.

In the case of “just managing”, the Resolution Foundation has provided the definition now being used widely by the media. It’s precise – the almost 6m working households with below-average incomes – and narrower than Policy Exchange’s, covering around a third of households.

Smart media handling from the Resolution Foundation means this definition is dominant. And it is this definition that the media will most likely use as a test for the autumn statement.

Philip Hammond, the chancellor, and his Labour counterpart, John McDonnell on Andrew Marr Show
Philip Hammond, the chancellor, and his Labour counterpart, John McDonnell, debate the autumn statement on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show. Photograph: Reuters

This creates a significant problem for the government. The Resolution Foundation group are set to lose out: not just as a result of poor wage growth and rising inflation in the wake of Brexit, but also as a direct result of government policy. They will be hit by the legacy Philip Hammond inherits from George Osborne: billions of pounds of cuts to universal credit, and the benefits freeze. Meanwhile, businesses and more affluent households are set to gain as a result of further tax cuts.

Unless Hammond announces some radical action to reverse this state of affairs – which is unlikely – ministers will rightly face some very tough questions in the wake of the autumn statement. They will most probably try to fend them off by pulling a couple of rabbits out of a hat, such as a fuel duty freeze and cutting air passenger duty.

But these will make only a marginal difference to working parents set to lose thousands of pounds a year in tax credits. Sophisticated economic models will start to churn out the impact of government policy on Jams within hours of Hammond sitting down after his statement. The results won’t fail to dominate the news after a day or two. Even if the headlines don’t cut through with “just managing” voters, they will certainly feel the effects in the years to come.

Moreover, politicians probably have a lot more faith in soundbites like “just managing” than the voters they’re trying to win over. There’s some evidence voters see labels like “hard-working families” as a patronising turn-off. Unless accompanied by real action to help this group of voters, “just managing” will likely face the same fate as its cliched predecessors.

Contributor

Sonia Sodha

The GuardianTramp

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