Individual policies that cut through into the popular consciousness are quite rare – instead, parties’ reputations tend to be formed by more general feelings about what they stand for and who they are. That’s why Labour are dogged by their reputation for financial mismanagement and the Conservatives still battle against the “party of the rich” tag.
One approach the parties hope will overturn these general reputational problems might be by adopting policies which directly challenge them – delivering a jolt of surprise to voters who thought them predictable. The interesting question is to what extent policy announcements are powerful enough to overturn such deep-seated suspicions or concerns. There’s an interesting poll out today from ComRes/The Whitehouse Consultancy which gives some insight into just that.
The pollster asked people to judge which party had proposed each of eight manifesto policies. Here are the results, with the actual party which made each pledge in brackets:
Freeze energy prices until 2017 (Labour pledge)
Labour: 59 per cent, Conservative: 13 per cent, Don’t Know: 28 per cent
Take people on the minimum wage out of income tax (Conservative)
Labour: 41 per cent, Conservative: 34 per cent, Don’t Know: 25 per cent
Spend at least an additional £8 billion a year by 2020 on the NHS over and above inflation (Conservative)
Labour: 39 per cent, Conservative: 35 per cent, Don’t Know: 26 per cent
Build at least 200,000 new homes a year by 2020 (Labour)
Labour: 39 per cent, Conservative: 32 per cent, Don’t Know: 29 per cent
Cut the budget deficit in every year of the next Parliament (Labour)
Labour: 25 per cent, Conservative: 49 per cent, Don’t Know: 26 per cent
Ensure migrants will not be able to claim benefits until they have lived here for at least two years (Labour)
Labour: 24 per cent, Conservative: 53 per cent, Don’t Know: 23 per cent
Increase the Inheritance Tax threshold for married couples and civil partners to £1 million (Conservative)
Labour:17 per cent, Conservative: 56 per cent, Don’t Know: 27 per cent
Ensure that those aged 18-21 do not have an automatic right to Housing Benefit (Conservative)
Labour: 11 per cent, Conservative: 54 per cent, Don’t Know: 35 per cent
Each party secured the most recognition for its own policy twice. For Labour, those were the energy price freeze and their pledge to build 200,000 homes by 2020 appear to have been noticed. For the Conservatives, it was restricting housing benefit for 18-21s and and raising the inheritance tax threshold.
Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean the respondents actually noticed these particular announcements – it may just be that they feel they can safely assume which party owns the policy by their general reputation.
Certainly, on the other four policies – levying no income tax on the minimum wage, spending an extra £8 billion on the NHS, cutting the deficit and limiting benefits for migrants, the voters polled wrongly plumped for the stereotypical party identified with each issue. Notably, those four are the very topics on which Labour and the Conservatives had deliberately set out to overturn popular expectations.
In that attempt, each has evidently still got a long way to go. However, the margins are notable. On benefits for migrants, Labour were 29 points behind on their own policy, while on cutting the deficit, they were 24 points behind, suggesting the public find them unbelievable on both topics. By contrast, on NHS spending the Conservatives were only four points adrift, and on taking the lowest paid out of income tax they were seven points behind. Might it be that the Conservatives’ attempts at disrupting their reputation are at least proving more successful than Labour’s?