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.


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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  • treborc1

    What can you say lets hope the working people think Miliband is the man to keep them in work, funny you may be right we in the UK tend to vote for people because they talk the talk not walk the walk.

    Working class versus the working people.

    Maybe a new law should come in only people who can work should be allowed to vote after all Labour love after with the Tories of the 1800, In 1866, Prime Minister Earl Russell brought in a
    Reform Bill. which proposed to allow
    “respectable” working men, excluding unskilled workers and what was
    known as the “residuum”, those seen by MPs as the “feckless and
    criminal” poor.
    Labour’s love affair with hard working and America, surprised labour think Obama is worthy after all they though Bush was a hero.


    • George McCarthy

      those seen by MPs as the “feckless and criminal” poor.

      The problem is, Tory and Labour policies are making more and more criminally poor. Besides food-banks, People are resorting to shop-lifting as a way of feeding their children and themselves, with all this ‘money’ being sloshed around the top tables, one needs to ask, why?

  • Jingoistic

    If you think Labour are on the side of ordinary people then you have to start listening to them, not make decissions then ask the question.

  • David Brede

    Giving people hope makes the difference.

  • Graemeyh

    I think James Morris is right. I think it will be a closely fought and tight election. Pity that this might cast the lib dems in role of “kingmaker” again but there we go.

  • Doug Smith

    Thanks for the heads-up re your mates’ book: It’s the Middle Class, Stupid.

    Review from the Washington Post: “Carville and Greenberg [the authors] say the question “How does this protect America’s middle class?” is the “filter through which everything must pass.”

    Well, Miliband is making progress in adapting this approach to the UK. He’s dumped the unions. Axelrod is in place. And Arnie Graf, whose report was never published, has been demoted – the middle class aren’t overkeen on mass political parties and community organising.

    The only problem is that the Tories and LibDems are doing exactly the same but without Labour’s disastrous record. And it seems to me that Cameron’s tennis club credentials are far more convincing than Miliband’s.

    Certainly Miliband is not the person to represent those in the UK who call themselves ‘working class’. But he appears to be equally unsuited to a role as a leader of the middle-class.

    Apart from securing safe seats for careerist politicians on Labour’s side of the House Miliband really does, sadly, seem unfit for purpose.

  • All the more reason for the Labour Party to get away simply from debating economic figures and produce a broader, more passsionate attack on Tory values and policies. We need some vison of a more equal and just society.

    • Doug Smith

      “We need some vison of a more equal and just society.”

      Be that as it may, but we won’t get it from the Labour Party. Labour has turned its back on those who most need a more equal and just society.

      Hence Labour’s privatisation of the NHS – Burham even positioned the NHS within the international healthcare market with his NHS Global. More recently we had the parliamentary elite refusing to renationalise the Royal Mail despite the vote approving this at conference.

      I couldn’t help but smile wryly when reading a report of a Farage speech delivered yesterday in Gateshead. Aiming at ex-Labour voters, Farage said: “They [Labour] have turned their backs on you in favour of the European project and big corporations in the private sector. You are no longer represented by that party.”

      I don’t think of myself as a UKIP supporter but you can’t say he was wrong.

      • I am sure you are right; Fargae has seen that there are potentially large numbers of votes amongst the those disillusioned over the years by the Labour Party. But what alternative is there to an effort to get the Labour leadership to understand this too? Some of them do of course and we need to keep pushing.

        • Doug Smith

          That alternative is to not vote for them.

          Events at Falkirk tell you all you need to know about what Labour’s elite feel about those outside their magic circle. The elite cooked-up a crisis in order to prevent a non-Progress candidate from becoming PPC in a safe seat. And then, to put the boot in, Miliband successfully dumped the trade union collective link.

          In Wythenshawe Sainsbury acolyte Mike Kane won a by-election by running a pro-NHS campaign. Yet Progress campaigned for the privatisation of the NHS when Brown was PM – fearing that he would slow the pace of the Blairite private sector bonanza within the NHS.

          The absence of democracy within the Labour Party allows these people, once elected to Parliament, to operate beyond accountability.

          In truth, what we once thought of as being the Labour Party no longer exists.

          The Party’s over.

          • Then who would you suggest one votes for assuming that there is a complete choice of suitable alternatives in my constituency ?

    • Holly

      Didn’t Labour just have a thirteen year stint in government?

      It is all fine & dandy attacking Tory values and policies, but it is Labour policies that have caused the most anguish for the working class Brit, and a vision-less future for thousands of our youngsters caught in the welfare trap, through lack of education & decent, meaningful qualifications.

      UKIP WILL nick votes from Labour up here in Yorkshire, & more than likely the north east.

      • jaydeepee

        Yeah, that minimum wage has caused me no end of anguish. Deary me.

      • BillFrancisOConnor

        ‘it is Labour policies that have caused the most anguish for the working class Brit, and a vision-less future for thousands of our youngsters caught in the welfare trap, through lack of education & decent, meaningful qualifications.

        UKIP WILL nick votes from Labour up here in Yorkshire, & more than likely the north east’.


      • I am not sure why you are reminding me of the disasters of New Labour which was in many was a neo-liberal, conservative government. The break with New Labour is by no means complete but the only realistic attitude, just a year away from an election, is to keep pushing and pressing for a change in style and strategy. I am sure you are right about UKIP but it will not help. By the way I am also ‘up here’ in Yorkshire.

  • Minnooli

    Ok, fair enough. Maybe this is true. So let’s have a vision for the country please, rather than these piecemeal retail offers Miliband is buying the electorate off with at the moment. And, please, any chance of an economic policy Ed and Ed? Pretty please??

  • George McCarthy

    I have to agree, the man in the street was seeing ‘the light at the end of the tunnel’, then Osborne came along and strangled it! Not only strangled it, but imposed cuts that reduced wages and benefits alike. The public will never forgive this and I predict that those who stayed away in 2010 (65% turn-out) will be out in force, the only thing in Cameron’s favour, Labour will lose votes to UKIP also!

    There’s a graph out that shows the real income levels and it doesn’t make good reading for Osborne, irrespective of the economy!

  • EricBC

    To win the Tories do not need to win over millions of voters. they just need the same votes as last time plus a few hundred thousand more.

    To defeat them Labour needs above all to be INTERESTING.
    The present Labour Party leadership and their policies are intensely boring.

  • robertcp

    I agree with most of the article. My understanding is that middle class in the US actually means people with medium incomes, while middle class people in the UK have above average incomes. In UK terms, Labour should aim for support from office workers, skilled manual workers and people on low incomes. What we call middle class people will usually only support Labour for ideological reasons, although this group might not be insignificant due to the expansion of higher education.

  • I’m not sure what evidence there is to say this. Its a long time since “growth” has been this poor. Is there any precedent?

    See this graph for example:

  • Pingback: Euro elections: Strategy, not tactics. | Hopi Sen()


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