Amid plenty of woeful news – rebellious Scots, ISIS murderers heading home, Nigel Farage making eyes at Tory backbenchers, Gordon Brown emerging from hiding to visit his memorable charm on the nation – Conservative ministers and strategists have one reliable source of hope. Where some might keep a photo of their sweetheart or their children in their wallet, in Westminster they are replaced by charts of the latest economic news.
Growth returned, has continued to strengthen and shows no signs of going away. It’s happy news for the nation, and ought to bring with it a political windfall. After all, everyone knows “it’s the economy, stupid” – right?
Well, it always was the economy, stupid – until now. Looking at the polls, which have stubbornly refused to rise in line with continued growth, it seems that the Clinton campaign’s famous maxim is at risking of being buried in the graveyard of bogus political rules. You know the kind – the taller candidate always wins (until he or she doesn’t), the candidate with blue eyes always wins (until they don’t), the party to win x seat always wins a majority (until the local electorate refuse to play ball).
By definition, each of these rules seems immovable until it suddenly becomes untrue – we humans have a great love for spotting patterns that sometimes exceeds the degree to which the patterns actually exist. It’s the political equivalent of seeing how many animals you can spot in the clouds scudding by on a summer’s day. Yes, it might have looked just like a Scottie Dog a few minutes ago, but pretty soon the breeze will blow it to tatters.
So given that we have accelerating growth, millions more people in work, falling unemployment and a generally positive story to tell, in contrast with most of our neighbours, is the economy stupidly failing to produce a Conservative lead in the polls?
Here are a few possibilities:
1) People simply aren’t thinking about the election yet. Okay, okay – I know you are, I know I am, and I certainly hope the Prime Minister is, but thankfully most of the population aren’t as weird as us. There are a million and one things to get on with rather than ponder May 2015 – and in the brief respite from feeding/educating/scolding the kids, paying the bills, going to work, washing the car and walking the dog, there are a hundred news stories hogging the headlines which are all more pressing (and interesting). It may be that the political bounce from the economy is simply yet to come – after all, Oppositions do tend to slip back as an election approaches, and if you think you’re bored of “Our Long Term Economic Plan” then you really don’t want to know what April 2015 is going to be like.
2) Many voters will never vote Conservative, regardless of the economy. We know that despite the (often misconceived) efforts at modernisation, rebranding and detoxification there are sizeable numbers of voters who rule out ever voting Tory. Even more worryingly, that number is higher than the number who rule out ever voting Labour. The reasons are manifold – echoes of the Thatcher years in former coalfields; memories of Enoch Powell among ethnic minority voters; the left’s constant refrain within culture and the arts; disillusionment, alienation and outright hatred among former Conservatives like Douglas Carswell (or Nigel Farage). If emotional factors deafen people to even consider Conservative messages, then even news of growth will make no impact. This can be overcome, but only through hard work over the course of years.
3) The gap between the concept of growth and the feeling of growth. With trust in politicians at a low, what kind of growth do you believe – that in ONS reports and on the news, or that which you feel in your pay packet and your household budget? For that matter, even if you believe both, which do you value most? A year ago I noted a ComRes poll which found that while the Conservatives were in the lead on which party is best for “the economy”, Labour led on the measure of which party is best for “me and my family”. That gap was a threat then and it is a threat now – particularly given that the top line economic figures take time to translate into sizeable, reliable gains in individual income and optimism.
Take the following extract from the latest Ashcroft National Poll, published yesterday:
‘…the proportion saying they think the economy is recovering from recession up from 58 per cent to 63 per cent. However, the number saying they feel better off as a result was unchanged at 12 per cent….More than half (51 per cent) said they thought “the economy is recovering from recession but I do not feel any better off.”’
That’s the hurdle which could yet trip up the assumption that economic growth automatically translates into electoral success. Voters’ measures of meaningful growth are fundamentally different to those used by the ONS, the OBR or the Treasury, and far more powerful at the ballot box – to forget that is to invite disaster.
It may well be that all three of these theories explain the decoupling of growth and votes. The first we must trust to inexorable political and media cycles, the second we can only address through sustained and lengthy campaigning well beyond 2015, and the third can only be relatively lightly touched by policy changes, at least over the space of a few months. Either way, hanging the next election on growth and growth alone looks like an increasingly risky bet.