Isn’t it a bit rich for Kirstie Allsopp and her like to tell poor people how to live well? | Catherine Bennett

The solution to the cost of living crisis is structural, not fatuous tips from the wealthy

Is it fair that Mrs Johnson should, courtesy of her sublime nickname, Carrie Antoinette, have become the face of complacent privilege? Whatever her faults, as recently enumerated by Lord Ashcroft, they have yet to include the dispensing of fatuous lifestyle tips for the less fortunate. Her old advisory tweets on single-use plastic were aimed, after all, at everyone less environmentally enlightened than Mrs Johnson, not just at poor people.

Regardless of her taste in single-use interiors, parties and cake, Mrs Johnson has yet, publicly, to express the traditional Tory conviction that the struggling should welcome lifestyle advice from the prosperous. True, her husband has previously argued that “if having a baby out of wedlock meant sure-fire destitution on a Victorian scale, young girls might indeed think twice about having a baby”. But as the now married mother-of-two Mrs Johnson sometimes reminds us, it is sexist and retrograde to think she might be as ghastly as her partner.

If she’s not Britain’s Marie Antoinette, her elimination leaves at least two UK energy companies in contention – along with a variety of influencers, politicians and City functionaries urging less fortunate people to, among other things, work harder, freeze bread, put on another layer, ignore fraud, forget the parties enjoyed by their betters and refrain from asking for a pay rise. Not, surely, since the unlamented George Osborne was fomenting hostilities between hard-working “strivers” and undeserving “shirkers”, have the unprivileged enjoyed so much free instruction on their habits and shortcomings and bread-storing practice. Deepening inequality, and the prospect of much more to come, promises, if anything, to reinvigorate a benevolent narrative that, while recognising the difficulties of the afflicted, remains firmly committed to the status quo.

Let them wear socks” was recently, for instance, E.ON’s way of reminding any customers unable to afford heating that they are freezing for the greater good. After a strikingly ungrateful reaction to its distribution of synthetic branded socks, labelled “heating down, CO2 down”, the company said it was “incredibly sorry for how we have made some people feel”.

Members of the “Ovo family” of energy suppliers have likewise learned that, in the assessment of hardship, comfortable warmth is becoming the new flatscreen TV. Below a certain income level, is it really needed? If true poverty was regularly declared after the 2008 economic crisis to be incompatible with the presence of a large television, domestic heating was generally allowed to be a necessity. Unless it was just overlooked, being cheaper at the time? Last month, perhaps to avert consumer consideration of the more affordable alternative, an energy windfall tax, some Ovo customers were treated to its “simple and cost-effective ways to keep warm this winter”.

If they could neither afford heating nor expect adequate assistance, poorer customers could help themselves with star jumps, doing chores and having “cuddles”. As always in advice to this incurably prodigal class, the need for temperance had to be stressed: the “warming feeling from wine or whisky is temporary, as you’ll soon lose heat from your core and end up feeling even colder”.

Such advice, as Robert Tressell mentioned in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (1914), has the further benefit of suggesting that the poor, when they imitate the affluent, bring their problems on themselves. “The theories that drunkenness, laziness or inefficiency are the causes of poverty are so many devices invented and fostered by those who are selfishly interested in maintaining the present state of affairs…”

Just as older or smaller TVs could once be tolerated in poor households, some heating is still acceptable. But how much? Among her recent hints for aspiring homeowners, which included shunning Netflix and gyms, and roaming Britain for any property unwanted by second-home buyers, the television celebrity Kirstie Allsopp also mentioned heating. Fuel poverty is a nightmare, she said, but “for those who aren’t in fuel poverty, if rising energy bills persuade them to turn their thermostat down to 17C that would be great. I keep my house at 17C.”

This miserable recommendation, though it must certainly help people like the Allsopps with two properties to maintain, would not work for everyone. The World Health Organization advises a minimum room temperature of 18C; higher settings for vulnerable groups. And this disregards evidence that women are typically 2.5C too cold in temperatures comfortable for men.

As much as Allsopp is to be admired for proposals that could add up to a deposit, if adopted, within less than 40 years, her message had, alas, an inescapable flavour of historical lectures on indigent improvidence. Once Netflix and gym membership are counted as unwarranted luxuries, we are pretty much back in the world of Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, frowning on sugar consumption and movie-going. At the same time, Seebohm Rowntree was arguing for the inclusion in working-class budgets of “sundries”, for instance a radio, alcohol, holidays, presents, football. “Working people are just as human as those with more money. They cannot live just on a ‘fodder basis’. They crave for relaxation and recreation just as the rest of us do.”

My tip, for what it’s worth, is never to take budgetary advice from a fashion influencer, energy company, member of the English peerage or a governor of the Bank of England, all the more so when this coincides with a cost of living crisis to which the only solution is structural.

That said, it wouldn’t hurt to hear some practical hints from Rishi Sunak. Although vast personal wealth combined with wilful-looking poor-blindness might appear, on the face of it, a clear qualification for Marie Antoinette status, that seems, in the light of his fake discounts and fraud-tolerance, distinctly overgenerous. Sometimes, you can’t help feeling, the fabulously rich are their own worst enemies.

• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist


Catherine Bennett

The GuardianTramp

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