The Politics of the Cost of Living

In advance of the publication of new research by Survation in collaboration with Unions21 that will address a range of topical social and political issues such as employment conditions, wages and the cost of living, Nicholas Barker looks back over previous research by Survation on some of these topics. Findings from the new research will be presented at the upcoming Unions21 conference on 21st March 2014.


The cost of living is sure to be a crucial issue over the coming year as the parties prepare the political battlefield for the 2015 general election. The coalition government will want to demonstrate the benefits of any economic recovery while Labour will want to push their ‘cost of living crisis’ narrative hard and challenge the government’s position that a rising tide is lifting all boats. As these debates play out, politicians are going to claim they have both the public and the facts on their side. Several studies by Survation provide important insights into these issues, revealing how the public feel about and have dealt with their cost of living situation, and how it will affect their vote. Energy bills, in particular, have been a high profile topic in Westminster and for the public, and Survation’s research has shown how different demographics have been affected by the cost of energy and the strength of public feeling for government action.

How big an issue is the cost of living? A poll by Survation for LabourList in October 2013 found that 4 out of every 5 voters believes that Britain faces a cost of living crisis. According to another Survation survey, conducted for the Mail on Sunday in January 2014, 17% of the public think that the cost of living is the most important issue facing the UK. This was the second highest ranking issue after immigration (at 29%) and was ranked slightly more important than the need for economic growth (15%). But the cost of living seems to be considerably more important for those under 55. Above this age, only 8% said the cost of living was the most important issue, but 20% of 18-34 year olds and 23% of 25-54 year olds thought it was the most important issue. Just how important the cost of living is to someone also seems to be closely related to how they vote, indicating that this will be a key issue in how the parties craft their election messages: less than 1 in 10 of those who vote or intend to vote Conservative think the cost of living is the most important issue facing the UK, but more than 1 in 4 Labour voters have this view.

However, all parties have a long way to go in convincing the electorate that they have the solutions, as the poll for LabourList showed. On the question of which political party is trusted to effectively deal with a cost of living crisis, the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats were distrusted by over half of the respondents: 52% would not trust Labour, 58% would not trust the Conservatives, and 65% would not trust the Liberal Democrats. Much the same trend can be seen in how much the parties are trusted – 30% trust Labour, 25% trust the Conservatives, with 12% trusting the Liberal Democrats. Around 1 in 5 respondents said they did not know who to trust, so this is an issue where people are yet to be convinced that any of the parties are handling the issue well and politicians have a long way to go before they have the confidence of the public (see the tables here).

One area in particular stands out as central to the cost of living debate: energy prices. Several Survation polls have looked at this question from multiple angles. Research conducted for the Daily Mirror in April 2013 found that 56% of respondents were worried about being able to meet the cost of their energy bills. The poll also showed that there is strong public desire for government action with almost 4 out 5 people agreeing with the idea that the coalition Government should do more to bring down energy prices. This sentiment was most strongly held by those over 55 (with 86% support), those on lower incomes (83%), and those living in Scotland and the North of England (85%). Further research by Survation on energy bills, conducted in October 2013 for the Mail on Sunday, looked in greater depth at how people have been affected by the high price of energy. 38% of people have had to cut back on essential purchase such as food in order to pay their energy bills and this figure rises to 45% for those in 18-34 age bracket and to 56% for the lowest earners. If energy prices are a prominent topic in the election campaign, the parties may take interest in the fact that this seems to be a problem that affects around half of Labour voters but less than a third of Conservative and Liberal Democrat voters (For more on how energy prices affect one particular segment of British society – new parents – see articles on research conducted by Survation on behalf of the National Childbirth Trust here and here).

Moreover, the cost of living is not an issue that can be taken in isolation, with the question of immigration lurking behind many people’s attitudes to their economic situation, especially wages. A Survation poll for ITN/Channel 5 found that 31% believe that the biggest problem caused by migration is the impact on wages and jobs for British-born workers – higher than any other suggested negative impacts of migration. This belief is more prevalent among those intending to vote for UKIP in the next general election – 42% of those considering for UKIP in the next election think that the impact on wages and jobs is the biggest problem caused by migration. With a sceptical public to be won over, and strong feelings across the political spectrum on all aspects of the cost living and its consequences, the next year will see these debates run on and on, with a lot to play for politically.

– By Nicholas Barker

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