Featuring Darren Jones MP, Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury.
Well, of course there’s a German word for it.
Gestaltzerfall. Sounds like a festive desert, or perhaps a Winter Olympic candidate city.
It’s the phenomenon we all know whereby we read a word so many times that it loses all meaning. It ceases to function as a word. It becomes purely an abstract marking, an indecipherable cave painting, a toddler’s fridge-doodle. We call it Semantic Satiation (an altogether more pedestrian, Anglo-Saxon term), the observable phenomenon whereby words, both in what they signify and in how they are signified, simply cease to mean what they mean. The act of their repetition has stripped them of all potency. They’re just shapes. Noises. Stuff.
Politics is a game of repetition. Get Brexit Done. MAGA. Thoughts and Prayers. Phrases that have been repeated so often as to lose any original meaning and simply become synaptic rat-runs. They have moved (if we’re going to be technical) from what Nobel-prize winning economist Danny Khaneman called ‘System Two’ thoughts (those we process rationally, slowly, consciously deriving meaning) to ‘System One’ (fast, unconscious, purely associative).
Tragically, there’s a new entry into the System One phrasebook of British Politics. Cost of Living.
Today, it sort of just means ‘the economy’. It’s inflation. Interest rates. The price of everyday items. It’s electronically tagged butter and baby formula. But look again at the words. Cost of Living. In 2024, in one of the wealthiest places on our planet, we no longer talk of the economy, but of the COST OF LIVING. The absurd, cruel reality of that little phrase has been photocopied and reproduced so many times as to lose all its savagery, all its specificity.
So, in this first piece in my series on how to communicate the meaningful policy that is being shaped on the centre-left of British politics in anticipation of the election, it’s where I have to begin. Indeed, YouGov’s ever-useful tracker of what matters to voters couldn’t be clearer; 55% of the UK population see it as the issue that is of greatest importance in the year ahead. The cost of living. How much it costs. To live.
As the start-finish bell rings and we enter the final lap of a long electoral race, it is also a policy area in which clear dividing lines are being drawn between Labour and the Conservatives.
Both sides agree on the problems. Low growth. Low productivity. High bills. High taxes. High exposure to markets beyond our control. Job insecurity. Global instability and conflict. A decline in both inbound investment and the perception that Britain, and indeed even the City of London, is a great place to do business (we Got Brexit Done, after all). These are the root causes that hide behind every foodbank shelf, every skipped meal, every added layer worn indoors. It doesn’t take Danny-Khanemen-level economic insight to identify what we can all see.
Treating those underlying problems, though, has opened up a chasm of policy difference. The Conservative policy, such as it exists, is to cut the taxes that they have themselves imposed, to find illusive growth in an economy they allowed to stagnate by further committing to the sectors and mechanics by which it stagnated, and to create better conditions for business to invest in a nation that spun clockwise down the reputational drain from ‘global marketplace’ to ‘global basket case’ in the space of a mini-budget and forty-four heady days of Trussonomic auto-economicide. These are the hungover, desperate promises of the serial adulterer. I won’t do it again. This time is different. I’ll make it better. Would you like breakfast? A suitcase full of wine?
Labour, on the other hand, have a plan. Except, they don’t have a plan. Because the UK economy isn’t an ITV4 detective drama with a nice, neat solution. Because, no matter the Gestaltzerfall of the last fourteen years of economic over-simplification, it is impossible to make complex policy from Playmobil. Unpicking a generation of errors amid a hugely challenging global context is not something that can be achieved by a catchy phrase. It requires forensic detail and time. It requires nuance and contingencies. It requires plans. Plural.
In Darren Jones MP’s parliamentary office, beside a framed map of the 1997 General Election result leaning absent-mindedly against the wall (oh, this old thing?), the Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury is doing precisely that work. The theme of our conversation is what he and “great mate” Rachel Reeves call “securonomics”. Amid a global geopolitical climate that profoundly lacks certainty, how are we to increase Britain’s relative security in an increasingly insecure world? Part of it, he begins, is to “make, sell and buy more in Britain”, but looking inward is only an element of the plan. Core to Labour’s belief that they can secure the elusive growth that has so evaded the Conservatives is the conviction that they are the team to bring in capital investment from beyond our post-Brexit shores. This is built upon the “stability premium” that Jones explains he and Reeves are busy establishing on the back of Labour’s “hard fought” reputation for sound economics.
Jones is understandably proud that this is the first time Labour have led the Conservatives on ‘who would be best at handling the economy’ since YouGov began to track it monthly, “which is why our fiscal rules are non-negotiable.” Institutional resilience, I suggest, is the output. Everything, Jones reiterates in agreement, everything is designed to ingrain stability.
Meaningful. But not exactly catchy. Realistic. But complex. This is economics by grown ups, not by headline-grabbing. Yet elections require both. They require the deliberate, discerning ‘System Two’ of detail, and the synaptic ‘System One’ of surface. National Renewal is the outcome, sure, but it’s not what an individual feels, needs. You can’t spend a decade of National Renewal at Tesco.
So, in an attempt to add a little lacquer, let’s look at these policies in total and, like a magic-eye puzzle, change our perspective until a clear, single image emerges that resolves them all.
Lower bills and less exposure to international energy markets via the creation of Great British Energy. Secure, distributed, well-paid jobs in the industries of the future, which are also those our climate requires. A huge home-building program and the regulation of new home purchases to ensure first-time buyers are able to get onto the ladder. Growth, indeed the highest in the G7, but not driven by unsustainable conditions or centralisation, either geographical or sectoral.
These outcomes are dependent on a tax policy based on fairness and frankness, closing loopholes (from VAT on public school fees to taxing carried interest and ending non-dom status) and addressing specific sectors which have failed to pay a fair share (from tech giants that off-shore profits to energy companies who have recorded huge profits through prices rather than prudence). This is the creation of the specific conditions in which a high growth, high skills, dynamic, diverse twenty-first century economy can take root. This is not revolutionary. There’s no wealth tax. There’s no UBI. Stocks aren’t being nailed together outside the stock exchange. This is a revolution of radical sensibleness. And is there anything more British than that?
So, what’s the message? The TL;DR of Labour’s economic policy? The way the centre-left proposes to find a path whereby living, just living, costs an amount that is sustainable to most people.
There’s a consistent theme we need to discern and aggregate. Sustainable jobs in sustainable sectors. Affordable homes and affordable mortgages. Stable prices at the till and stable bills on the doormat. Growth driven by productivity and investment around the nation, around the economy, not by further leveraging the old model. A different-shaped Britain PLC. If the industrial revolution was our first pivot, and the retrenchment into City dependence and services was the second, this is the third great act of Modern Britain’s economy. A global, green powerhouse of homeowners in stable, future-proof jobs, distributed across our nation and our economy. A huge mission of change. We might call it a ‘long term economic plan’, for want of a better phrase.
Instead, though, let’s be more specific. Let’s resist the tabloid hyperbole and ignore the barrage of incoming spittle, and simply identify what that new economy would mean. How it would feel. A future of financial security for all of us. Built on affordable homes to buy or rent, on sustainable growth, on green jobs, on common energy ownership. A more optimistic, higher potential Britain where merely living not only doesn’t cost too much, but that meagre goal is no longer all we dare to strive for. A future of Financial Security For All.
Leaving Portcullis House, this is the clear promise I discern amid the lever-arch files, the sober realism and the spreadsheets that fill Darren Jones’ office. Financial Security For All. It may not sound like the moon on a stick, but we know too well what it feels like when we don’t all have that security. It feels like a Cost of Living crisis. And we’ve all heard those words far, far too many times.
This blog is part of media strategist Alex Hesz’s ‘Mission Messaging’ series for Progressive Britain. Check out the previous instalment, ‘Let’s End the Era of ‘Government by Vibes’ here.