David Kirkby is a researcher at Bright Blue. He recently completed writing a PhD in Philosophy at Durham University, where he also taught logic and ethics.
It is sometimes said that every election campaign is a variation on one of two themes. While opposition parties urge the electorate that it is time for a change, governing parties campaign on a let us finish the job ticket. This latter kind of campaign was what Abraham Lincoln had in mind when he suggested that you shouldn’t change horse mid-stream. Governments on both sides of the Atlantic have been imploring the electorate to stay on the proverbial horse ever since.
With the next election now only a year and a half away, the Conservatives are increasingly portraying themselves as “mid-job”. The job in question is, of course, that of economic convalescence, along with the restoration of the public finances. While the Government has notable achievements in a number of areas, such as welfare and education, the core message will centre upon the economy. For example, positive economic news is now announced to a chorus of reminders from Conservative ministers and MPs that there is more to be done. As we move closer to the next election, the Conservatives intend to drum home this very simple line: that they must be allowed to finish the job.
However, while only a few months ago this electoral strategy looked perfectly sound, it is now in severe danger of being overtaken by events: there is just too much good economic news. Britain is now rivalling the US as the fastest growing economy in the G7. The Bank of England is forecasting unemployment to fall below seven per cent 18 months earlier than expected. House prices are rising and the business confidence of small and medium sized manufacturers is the highest on record. While pitfalls and uncertainties remain, one no longer need be a wild optimist to think that by 2015 the economy will not simply be recovering, but booming.
The difficulty this deluge of good news presents for Conservative electoral strategy is clear: the party cannot campaign against changing horse mid-stream if the public is convinced that we are back on dry land. Against this economic backdrop, the electorate may well decide that the Conservatives’ self-proclaimed journey is already complete.
More generally, the more the economy recovers, the less it will matter to voters. Voter priorities are not fixed, but shift quite abruptly in response to events. Between 1980 and 1982, the proportion of the electorate who considered the trade unions to be an important concern for government plummeted from 53 per cent to 11 per cent in light of reforms weakening their position. On the other hand, the proportion of the electorate who deemed the economy to be an area of concern jumped nearly six-fold from late 2007 to late 2008, as the financial crisis shook the country.
In turn, as the economy recovers, it will drop down voters’ priority list. Recent Ipsos polling suggests that this is beginning to happen already. True, the deficit and the need for austerity will persist well beyond the next election; even accounting for recent upward revisions to growth, Britain’s debt ratio will not peak until 2016-17 at 86 per cent. However, while the deficit will persist, its importance is likely to dissipate in the mind of the electorate as the economy improves. The Government has kept deficit-reduction at the forefront of voter priorities by arguing that it is essential to the rescue of the economy (remember the dark hints about Greece?). A strong macroeconomic picture deprives austerity of this significance and leaves it looking suspiciously like a classic Westminster bubble issue: dry, technical and unlikely to move voters.
In sum, the Conservative party risks adopting a strategic narrative at the next election which does not interest voters or directly address to their priorities. While it has been almost universally assumed that the party’s electoral hopes will be boosted by the economic recovery, in this scenario it could be the strength of the recovery which ends up scuppering them.
This does not prove that the Conservatives cannot win the next election, but it does suggest that the strength of the economy changes the way the party must approach it. Every government must be ‘mid-job’, but the job must be the right job: one which speaks to the issues which voters see in front of them rather than behind them. If economic recovery and deficit reduction is the first part of the job, what is the second? The Conservative Party needs to begin painting a positive vision of where the country is heading, so that by the next election we all know the answer to this question.