The polling in 2011 provided a clear and consistent picture of the political landscape. Five points are salient:
- People believe that we do need the cuts; they don't like them, they think they are a bit unfair and hurting the economy, but consistently they say they are neccessary – moreover, they blame the heritage of Labour for that necessity more than the Conservatives.
- Labour has developed no credible alternative narrative. It generates surprisingly little interest on any topic. On the positive side for Labour, it enjoys a greater pool of underlying goodwill than the Conservatives – people are more likely to think Labour is 'on their side'.
- The nation respects David Cameron rather than trusts him; and as time has gone by it has cooled rather than warmed to him. The EU veto increased that respect, but it remains to be seen whether that will be more than a blip on a downward-trending graph.
- People have given up on Ed Miliband as an alternative Prime Minister.
- The EU remains a highly ambivalent topic, both in terms of what people want to do about it and how much they think about it.
The direction for 2012? Never has it been more obvious that "it's the economy". News events like Libya and the riots come into view, seem terribly important, then disappear again. Even 'schools 'n' hospitals', though they bob up and down in people's consciousness, are as nothing compared to the monotonous swell of anxiety about our economic security. So long as Cameron and Osborne lead on that issue – and in spite of all the dissatisfaction, they certainly do still lead on it – they will command the agenda.
The EU is a pollster's dilemma. Ask one way about what's important, and Europe elicits huge passion among a significant portion of the population. Ask people plain and simple to name the issues that are most significant in their own lives, and it's rare that Europe comes high in any list. And while they are overwhelmingly negative about the Commission and all its works and tend to applaud expressions of independence, they are also very nervous about the status quo being disrupted.
People's preferred position is to be inside the EU but situated as near as possible to the exit. Avoiding any real decision is much preferred. But if there were to be a truly decisive moment for the UK's relationship with the EU (for example, in a referendum) the key question would be whether people felt economically safer in or out. I don't believe nation-loving sentiment would be the dominant consideration.
If one were advising the Conservatives about what to do to maintain their current relatively strong position, one might say:
- First, make every effort to keep your messages about your economic policy clear, consistent, and relentless; don't try to 'capture the imagination' with interesting ideas; instead, keep boring everyone into submission about the current course being the only possible course and that it will assuredly deliver greater security in the future.
- Secondly, don't try to open up a great heroic debate about Europe, the risk of it backfiring is huge; but do quietly focus on developing a definite, unfudged strategy and be willing to explain it without fuss when the eurozone's calamities demand decisions. Looking unprepared when something big blows up can do serious damage.
- Thirdly… The current situation – surprisingly – presents the government with some golden opportunities. We have a fixed-term parliament, creating a strangely stable coalition out of often divergent outlooks. The public's attention is more on the dynamics of this partnership than on what Labour is doing. The internal tensions can actually be positive, creating a sense of adults doing their best to work together in the interests of the nation at difficult times. This appeals strongly to the way the public would prefer to think about politics.
So for at least the next two years the Conservatives and the Lib Dems have every reason to help each other achieve real reforms for the country, so long as they are in relatively non-controversial areas where we can make significant progress – ones which may seem minor but can bear fruit well before the next election. I have repeatedly mentioned open government and freeing up data; both coalition partners believe in this and it's of massive longer term value. There is much further to go in changing the process of government, specifically about reforming the civil service to make it more of an enabler and less of a system of bureaucratic blocking.
Most important is addressing productivity. As the world begins to emerge from its despondency, it will again be all about competitive advantage. America will again innovate its way into growth, and China will do it with sheer sustained effort. But in Europe? The themes will be about who works hard and who doesn't; who uses the new technological tools and who stands in the way; who can get the most out of talent within the growing band educated unemployed. When so much talk is of cuts and strikes, this should be the response.