A voteless recovery?

Peter KellnerPresident
August 04, 2014, 8:10 AM GMT+0

The Conservatives' small gains in voting intention are at odds with their large gains in public confidence on the economy. Are there any historical parallels?

As they head for their holidays, senior Conservatives are beginning to worry that they are failing to benefit fully from Britain’s economic recovery. Recent months have seen a succession of good news stories, with growth well established, living standards no longer falling and predictions of future performance regularly upgraded. Yet the Tories seem unable to overturn Labour’s narrow lead.

The table below illustrates what has happened. It compares YouGov’s current figures, drawn mainly from our latest poll for the Sunday Times, with the same findings two years ago, when Britain was still mired in recession. On every indicator other than voting intention, there has been a sharp move in the Conservatives’ direction – yet support for the party is up only two points:

These figures revive uncomfortable memories of the 1990s. Leading Tories have been hoping that the coming general election would be a rerun of 1992, when fears about the economic impact of a Labour government drove people to vote Conservative in record numbers, despite the fact that Britain was only beginning to recover from the 1990-1 recession. Instead, could next year’s election be more like 1997, when the Tories lost power despite presiding over four years of steady growth, low inflation and rising living standards?

I expect next year’s election to be different from both 1992 and 1997. Here are three distinct features of what is happening today.

  • The Conservatives have never sunk as low this time as they did in the 1987-92 and 1992-97 parliaments. They (almost) won the 2010 election with 37% of the vote. What is striking is that by 2012, at the point in the electoral cycle when governments are normally at their least popular, they had lost only four points – despite missing badly all their early targets for economic growth and deficit reduction. The main reason is that David Cameron and George Osborne succeeded in pinning the blame for our economic woes on Labour. Having lost relatively little support, the Conservatives had fewer potential deserters to win back than most past governments.

  • That said, their tiny, two point gain, from 33% to 35%, masks two other factors. The first is that Labour’s support is down five points, so the gap between the two main parties has narrowed sharply, from 10 points to three. The second is that the Tory recovery has been inhibited by the four point increase in support for Ukip. Around half of Ukip’s support comes from people who voted Conservative in 2010. The Tories can’t be happy that their party has proved so vulnerable to Nigel Farage’s brand of populism; on the other hand, if they can squeeze Ukip’s support next May – and YouGov polling at the time of the European parliament election campaign suggests they can, especially in Conservative-Labour marginals – then the Tories could end up with support of 37-38% in next year’s election. This would be enough to make them the largest party once again, though not enough to give them outright victory.

  • Even though Britain’s gross domestic product has recovered to pre-recession levels, living standards have not. Our population has grown, so the same national economic cake has to be shared among more people, with the result that most of us have a little less each. And while the mood of despair may have begun to disperse, pessimists still outnumber optimists when people are asked what they expect to be better or worse off in 12 months’ time. Labour has made some headway with the argument that the current coalition will be the first Government in recent times to fight an election when average living standards are lower than when it was first elected.

If I were a Conservative strategist, the historic parallel that I would study with care is neither 1992 nor 1997, but 1979. The previous summer (that is, at the same point in the electoral cycle as we are now), the Government seemed to be on course for re-election. Like the current one, it was presiding over a marked recovery from the tough economic conditions it had inherited. It had a Prime Minister who was far more popular than the main opposition leader. The Liberals were seeking to extricate themselves from their links with the Government and reassert their independence. The opposition’s large polling lead had evaporated.

In those days, when prime ministers could choose when to dissolve Parliament, an election in autumn 1978 was widely expected. But the Prime Minister, Labour’s James Callaghan, decided against the idea. He wasn’t sure that Labour could yet win outright. He expected the recovery to continue and do deliver enough votes to give Labour a clear victory.

Instead Callaghan reaped a peculiarly vicious whirlwind. A mammoth bust-up between Labour and the unions led to the Winter of Discontent, with strikes causing rubbish to pile up in the streets, bodies to remain unburied and petrol stations to run out of fuel. The Government’s economic credibility collapsed, and voters turned decisively to the opposition leader, Margaret Thatcher.

Normally, today’s Conservatives look back fondly at the 1979 election, and the start of 18 years of Tory rule that transformed Britain. However, the events leading up to it serve as a warning against prime ministerial hubris when the economy is in the recovery ward. It can all go wrong. Perhaps Cameron will be luckier than Callaghan and gain votes from continued economic growth, falling support for Ukip and distrust of Labour. But perhaps he won’t. In today’s interconnected world, trouble in one part can quickly affect trade, jobs and investment everywhere. Consider the headlines coming out of the Middle East, and the tensions with Russia over the Ukraine. Those conflicts could end up affecting us all, and wrecking Cameron’s hopes. His prospects for victory next May, though real, can’t be guaranteed.

See the full Sunday Times results

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