It’s not growth that wins elections, it’s being on the side of ordinary people

24th April, 2014 8:35 am

Perhaps the most misunderstood insight in the history of politics was chalked on the wall of Bill Clinton’s war-room as he ran for the Presidency in 1992: it’s the economy, stupid. Today, that phrase is being used to argue that the 2% growth predicted by the OBR for 2015 is David Cameron’s ticket back to Downing Street. What is seldom mentioned is that the US economy grew at double that level for a whole year before the 1992 election, yet there was no second term for President H W Bush.

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In fact, the pattern is pretty consistent – growth is not enough for victory. In Britain’s 1997 election, the Tories delivered 3% growth and lost. The Democrats were crushed in the 2010 midterms despite 2.5% growth, and only won the Presidential election when President Obama made a switch, stopped patting himself on the back for macro-economic success, and began advocating for the middle class. Last year’s Austalian and Israeli elections saw incumbents who had kept their countries out of the global financial crisis both suffer badly.

The conclusion drawn by political scientist David Sanders is that in the UK ‘there are no direct links between the economy and support… no significant direct links between macro-economic change and party popularity in the UK’. Anyone who argues from economic growth to an inevitable rise in the Tory vote is reading runes not polls.

A more sophisticated version of the growth argument recognizes Labour’s claim, echoed in Sanders’ analysis, that in Britain, it is perceived living standards that drives the vote more than the macro-economy. The argument runs that living standards are showing some signs of improvement, so perhaps that will drive the Tory vote up.

The problem is that Bush’s advisors could have said the same thing in 1992. That year saw inflation hover around 3% while average wages rose 5%. At last living standards were improving. All would be well, Mr President.

If the penny didn’t drop earlier, it surely would have done when they saw the simple 15 second ad the Clinton team ran to close the campaign. It asked voters one question: ‘How’re you doing?’ Not well enough for Bush was the clear answer.

If robustly rising living standards weren’t enough for Bush, it is hard to see the much more challenging situation in Britain working for Cameron. If he seriously plans on building a living standards strategy on the basis of statistics that ignore housing costs, he shouldn’t be surprised when his ‘out of touch’ numbers continue to rise.

The third economic argument for a Tory rise in the polls focuses more on party brands and less on the economy itself. The claim is that the Tory lead in forced choice questions on ‘managing the economy’ will count more as we get closer to the election and voters realize their jobs and mortgages are on the line. Nevermind that in 1997, New Labour closed the campaign 7 points behind the Tories on managing the economy, and much further behind amongst the (mainly older Tory voters) who said the issue was a priority for them.

In focusing on poll questions asking about ‘the economy’, this argument ignores other, more quotidian economic measures. Labour continues to lead on jobs, prices, and, most importantly, supporting working people. The last US electoral cycle saw Mitt Romney ahead on ‘the economy’ (though it did narrow right at the end). It was Obama’s lead on being for ordinary people carried him through.

Lord Ashcroft’s post-election polling in 2010 showed that the Tories have a Romney shaped problem: ‘the idea that the Conservatives still favoured the rich rather than ordinary people was by far the most common barrier’ for people who thought about voting Tory but ultimately didn’t. That cap is still there – neither David Cameron’s embrace of huskies nor his more recent disavowal of them made any difference to that crucial challenge. His welfare reforms are an effort to tackle this issue, but the numbers aren’t budging.

Of course, the Labour party isn’t sitting still. It is developing and advancing an economic case that will boost voter trust in the party and build its lead as the party to restore living standards. But it is wrong to conclude that the current state of the polls imply a Tory resurgence. As things stand, it is Labour that looks most likely to form the next government.

And as for the ‘economy, stupid’. Bored of the misinterpretations, James Carville and my colleague and fellow advisor to the Labour party Stan Greenberg, have updated their 1992 advice. Their most recent book: It’s the Middle Class, Stupid.

James Morris is polling advisor to the Labour party and Director of the London office of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner

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