WHAT is the General Election about in the voters’ eyes?

Sure, the various political parties have their own agendas. The Tories want it to be about President Theresa May so they don’t have to defend their appalling record in government. Ditto in Scotland, where they drum on incessantly about a second independence referendum to hide their lack of policies. Scottish Labour has also focused on the constitution in order to hide its own internal divisions: Gordon Brown’s tub-thumping intervention last Friday somehow forgot to mention … er, the name of Jeremy Corbyn.

But here’s the thing: ordinary voters have a wonderful tendency to decide for themselves what they think is the key issue of the day. And it’s not always what the politicians, media or pollsters are punting. As we are about to find out with a vengeance in GE2017.

Voters, north and south of the Border, are scunnered that they are being asked to go to the polls yet again, when there is no obvious need apart from Theresa May’s opportunistic move to shaft the Labour Party. But commentators have not yet grasped what such popular resentment actually forebodes. The electorate is not necessarily blaming Mrs May for filling their TV screens with more politics. Yet it is tuning out the carefully crafted messages that spin doctors on all sides have prepared. Forget Brexit as an issue. Instead, a decade and more of harsh austerity and poor wages is putting living standards to the top of the political agenda as far as ordinary folk are concerned. Forget that at your peril.

Lord Ashcroft, the maverick millionaire pollster, has already registered this trend. His independent polling has found that while UK voters think negotiating Brexit on the right terms is the most important issue “facing the country”, it falls to distant third — behind the cost of living rising and the state of the NHS — when people are asked what matters most to themselves and their family. In other words, in GE2017, folk are likely to vote with their purse and wallet.

The squeeze on ordinary living standards is beyond anything experienced in modern times. Average earnings in the UK fell nine per cent between 2008 (when the banks crashed) and 2013, as lacklustre wage growth failed to keep pace with inflation. Reason: years of poor productivity and deindustrialisation in favour of boosting the banking industry had made the UK uncompetitive as an exporter. Also, those jobs available to ordinary people — in shops or in the public sector — saw wages flatline.

As a result, the number of folk living in households with income below the minimum standard rose from 15 million in 2008-09 to 19 million in 2014-15, according to the respected Joseph Rowntree Foundation. If you are 45 or under, you are most likely to be living in a household where the family income is still lower in real terms than before the banking crisis. No wonder voters are prepared to lash out. The Brexit vote showed their frustrations but there’s more to come.

After the EU referendum the value of sterling on foreign exchange markets plunged like a stone, meaning that everything we import suddenly cost 15 per cent more.

This upsurge in inflation has put the final kibosh on living standards. The UK now faces the weakest growth in household incomes in 60 years, with poor families faring the worst. Weak earnings growth, together with higher taxes and capped benefits, will sharply increase inequality by 2022.

It’s true that rises in the minimum wage might help the very poorest, but don’t forget that low earners are also disproportionately affected by higher prices for food and fuel, which take a bigger share of their spending. Then add to this the savage cuts to welfare spending about to be visited on the most vulnerable by President May, if she gets her super majority at Westminster. The Tories have already pencilled in massive cuts to working-age welfare of more than £12 billion — a cap Labour supported back in 2015. As a result, living standards for the entire bottom half of the working-age income distribution in the UK will fall in real terms over the next period.

THE curious thing in all this is the unlikely popularity of the Tories, the party of austerity. The latest Ashcroft poll is predicting a majority for President May of up to 172 seats over Labour — just short of the 179 landslide won by Tony Blair in 1997. Some recent polls are showing UK Labour support on the up (modestly) as Jeremy Corbyn’s leaked manifesto gains some traction, especially its proposal to lift the cap on public-sector wage increases. But the Tories are hoovering up other parties’ votes to Labour’s right.

Why are many on low incomes voting Tory? Because, in part, the unprecedented collapse in economic prospects across the UK has undermined traditional faith in social democracy as a vehicle for change. In such circumstances, some people can be misled into looking for scapegoats (immigrants) or putting their faith in so-called “strong” leaders. Respect is also involved: it is too easy for political elites to disparage working-class voters. But we should also note that Theresa May has been deft at pretending to occupy traditional social democratic territory; note her vacuous promise to build more social housing.

Yet it all comes down to giving people hope. Ed Miliband offered none in 2015 and was consigned to that rather overcrowded dustbin of history. Corbyn, while hindered at every turn by his MPs, has at least got back into the hope business. Hope is the ground traditionally occupied by the SNP. It is where we need to stay. In each election, the party has to redefine and sharpen its message that enlightened intervention by the SNP government at Holyrood and SNP MPs at Westminster can truly make the lives of ordinary folk better in a measurable way — including household incomes.

Certainly, over a decade and despite Tory cuts to the Holyrood budget, the SNP has delivered a lot in peoples’ wallets. Saving £27k on getting a degree is not sweeties, which is why Corbyn is stealing our policy clothes in England. However, the sheer scale of the assault on living standards is hurting people as never before. Scottish Labour has responded opportunistically by blaming the SNP government for not using its new powers to top-up welfare payments and pensions — while sleekitly failing to say where the cash is supposed to come from when Holyrood has no powers over corporation tax or investment income.

Nevertheless, safeguarding household income is territory the SNP must dominate. When push comes to shove, the only quick way to raise household incomes is to boost public-sector pay and welfare benefits. That raises local consumer spending — which in turn raises more revenue for the new Scottish Exchequer. If our social democracy means anything, it is using the power of the state to redistribute incomes. Even if this takes time, the SNP has to offer a line of march, perhaps by phasing in a living income for full-time carers. Living standards will prove the wildcard in deciding the outcome of the GE2017 election. We need to look carefully at the cards in our hand.