Just about not managing – Labour’s opportunity?

Towards the end of last year, Westminster Village was obsessed with ‘JAMs’. No, not the ones you might find at a village fete. The so-called ‘Just About Managing’ members of the population cited by Theresa May as she took office in Downing Street back in July.

Downing Street eschewed the use of the term ‘JAMs’ but it became almost synonymous with the new Prime Minister’s domestic policy priorities. And while Brexit will surely define Mrs May’s legacy (as it did her predecessor), she was quick to identify this group of the population as a focus of her efforts.

According to the Joseph Roundtree Federation, the terms JAMs applies to six million working-age low to middle income households. But it may prompt some concern within Downing Street that a new report from the Foundation has concluded that one in three people in Britain falling into the JAM category are at risk of falling into poverty.

The Foundation’s research suggests 19 million people earned less than the minimum income standard last year, ostensibly the line between ‘just about managing’ and really not. Worryingly, that’s four million more people than six years ago.

The findings should prompt some tough questions for the Government. Granted, Theresa May’s administration has only been in place since July, but a Conservative-led government has been in place since 2010. So ministers could be legitimately challenged over the legacy of austerity, why wages have consistently failed to keep up with rising living costs, and – most importantly – what will be done to address the situation with the Budget mere weeks away?

The Joseph Roundtree Foundation’s report should provide significant scope for Labour, if the Party has the capacity and wit to act on it. But it’s revealing that in The Times, which highlighted the research on its second page yesterday, the Opposition Party wasn’t quoted.

This in many ways sums up the difficulties Labour faces at the moment. Riddled with divisions over Europe and facing two difficult by-elections (one they could well lose and have almost given up, if you believe latest reports), the story of Labour at the moment is one of internal strife rather than of detailed policy plans or efforts to hold the Government’s feet to the fire.

With the Budget on 8 March, Labour needs to seize the impetus and highlight findings such as those of the Joseph Roundtree Foundation – challenging ministers to explain the financial difficulties many people appear to be in, and demanding detailed measures to reduce the threat of poverty across the population. Achieving that will help reassert the opposition so necessary to making our democracy function, and could even help tackle Labour’s recent lamentable polling numbers.