'Unpopular, unpersuasive'

Peter KellnerPresident
July 02, 2012, 8:30 AM GMT+0

'Unpopular government, unpersuasive opposition' – Peter Kellner explores how the public's current views of the two main parties are affected by the state of the economy

Two big facts lie at the heart of contest between Labour and the Conservatives. The first is that most people think the Government and, in particular, George Osborne, are making a mess of running Britain’s economy. The second is that Labour has so far failed to persuade enough people that its people and policies would make us better off.

Want to receive Peter Kellner's commentaries by email? Subscribe here

YouGov’s latest survey for the Sunday Times provides compelling evidence on both points:

  • By two-to-one the public think the Coalition is managing the economy badly (61%) rather than well (29%)

  • Just 15% think the Coalition is good ‘for people like you’

  • Again, only 15% think Osborne is doing a good job as Chancellor of the Exchequer. For the first, time fewer than half of all Conservative voters (47%) say he is doing well. By almost two-to-one, the public thinks he should be replaced as Chancellor. This includes one in five Conservative voters

  • Just 22% think ‘the Government’s strategy for strengthening Britain’s economy and bringing public finances into balance over the long term’ have either started to work (8%) or will fairly soon (14%). A further 24% say the policies will work ‘eventually’, but the biggest number, 39% don’t expect them to work at all

One the other hand….

  • More people still blame the last Labour government than the present Coalition for the deficit and the current recession (though, when the choices is widened to offer more targets for blame, ‘global factors and the debt crisis in the Eurozone’ are blamed more than either main party

  • Well under half the public (currently 38%) think the Government should change course and concentrate on growth, ‘even if this means the deficit stays longer or gets worse’. True, fewer, 30%, want the Government to stick to its current strategy of reducing the deficit ‘even if this means growth remains slow.’ As many as 32% don’t take sides. So far the fundamental argument about the direction of economic management has not broken decisively for either side

  • Despite the large number of people who want Osborne sacked, he remains more popular – or, more accurately, less unpopular – than Ed Balls, Labour ‘s Shadow Chancellor. Asked who would make the better Chancellor, 28% say Osborne while 22% say Balls. An extraordinarily high 50%, however, say ‘don’t know’. This suggests a widespread public mood of ‘a plague on both of you’

  • Although the weeks since the Budget have seen a variety of U-turns by Osborne, allegations of government ‘omnishambles’, and a loss of support for the Conservatives, Balls has not been able to capitalise on this. Osborne was six points ahead of him immediately after the Budget and remains six points ahead today

Will this verdict – poor government, unpersuasive opposition – persist until the next election? Only a fool would pretend to know the answer, but it is possible to identify the main factors that will decide the outcome.

The first and most obvious is the state of the economy. By 2015, the Conservatives will want far more than today’s derisory 8% saying their policies have started to work. This will require two things: evidence of sustained growth and a steady reduction in government borrowing. One without the other won’t be enough. And for the public to be sure that progress is being sustained on both fronts, I’d expect a year or more of improving figures to be needed.

This means turning the corner by the end of next year. If one takes into account that any change in policy takes six months or more to have a significant impact on the real world, Osborne needs to ensure that the right policies (whether maintaining plan A or switching to plan B) are in place by next spring. Although the next election is almost three years away, Osborne will in effect be judged in 2015 by decisions he takes within the next 12 months.

The economy’s trajectory will also play a large part in deciding the second factor: by 2015, who will the public blame for the recession that we are currently experiencing? If growth resumes and the deficit reduction programme remains on course, David Cameron will have every reason to expect Labour’s performance before 2010 to be thought to be more at fault.

Even if the economy is still stumbling, it is not absolutely certain the Tories will attract the lion’s share of the blame. Labour needs to win the argument, and so far it hasn’t done so. This brings us to factor number three: Labour’s credibility.

To some extent, the current, continuing, lack of faith in Labour’s Shadow Chancellor and policies is not surprising. Two years ago, after 13 years in office, Labour suffered a bad defeat. Once a party goes into opposition after a long period in government, it has difficulty getting its message across. The Tories suffered this problem after the first Labour landslide in 1997. Implicitly the great majority of voters who don’t follow politics closely take the view that they have made their decision and aren’t interested in what the rejected party has to say until close to the following election.

That’s where Labour is now. Those who take a close interest today in its affairs are like people who fret in December about Andy Murray’s chances of winning Wimbledon. They may be noble but they’re not normal.

This is, then, a good time for Labour to work out in detail, and behind closed doors, the details of the economic policy offer it will make in 2015, and not to worry too much about its reputation for a good while yet. But, once again, it will take time for the party’s policies to percolate through to the public. And part of that process will be the debate among economists, business leaders and the more serious financial commentators: their verdict will help to shape the wider public response.

This means that Balls, like Osborne, has some time – but not a vast amount. The basics of Labour’s offering will need to be out in the open within the next year or so, even if precise tax and spend numbers need not – indeed, should not – be unveiled until much nearer the election.

In short, the relationship between the economy and voting intention is not a simple one.

Older politicians should know this well: in 1992 a Conservative government secured re-election despite a weak economy, because Labour wasn’t trusted – and then, five years later, the Conservatives were ejected from office despite a strong economy, because the party’s credibility had been shattered by Black Wednesday.

Today the contest is finely poised, because millions of voters are impressed with neither main party. Both Tories and Labour are caught together in a vortex of public condemnation. If one of them can escape the swirl and regain its credibility, it will be well placed for 2015.

See the survey details and full results for the latest Sunday Times poll here

Want to receive Peter Kellner's commentaries by email? Subscribe here