What issues will decide next year’s general election? For the major parties, the challenge is making their issues the topic of national debate.
For the Tories that means focusing on the economy, immigration and crime. For Labour, it means steering every news agenda towards health, education and housing.
The Tories are the more trusted stewards. Voters back them to safeguard our finances, control our borders and police the streets – despite three years of sluggish growth, uncurbed immigration levels and cuts in police numbers.
Nevertheless, they are far more trusted on each of those issues than Labour. But, if the Tories are trusted to apportion the money, voters would prefer Ed Miliband’s party spend it.
This reflects a trend across developed democracies. Voters want Scandinavian levels of spending but want to pay Texan-level taxes. They want left-wing parties when asked about their public services but right-wing ones when asked about actually managing the economy or country.
That is what makes Ed Balls’ speech today on taxes and wages interesting. While Labour are reportedly going to focus on the NHS over the summer, Balls is showing how Labour will challenge the economic recovery being trumpeted by the Coalition.
Balls is doing this even though the government’s economic approval rating has dramatically recovered in the past year, buoyed by near 4 per cent growth.
This is despite only a few voters thinking the economy is “on the way to recovery”. But more voters think the UK is at least now showing “signs” of it – which most didn’t in 2013.
And in welcome news for the country, if bad news for Labour, the number of voters feeling the “cost-of-living” crisis has halved in the past three years.
In October 2011, 49 per cent of people were “worried” they wouldn’t have“enough money to live comfortably”. Now 25 per cent are.
This is slightly at odds with what has happened to real wages over the past four years. As George Eaton noted today, “Labour will still be able to go into the general election and answer Ronald Reagan’s question – “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” – in the negative”.
That is because inflation has outstripped people’s wages throughout this parliament.
But this appears to have little effect on the government’s economic approval ratings.
Headline GDP appears to be the only statistic that matters. At first glance there is little link between GDP and economic approval.
But, by using a three-month rolling average of GDP, we can uncover a relationship.
The data implies that if GDP growth were 0 per cent, the government’s economic approval would be -30 per cent. But for every 1 per cent of quarterly GDP growth, their approval increases 24 per cent. The realtionship is not that strong – GDP growth explains only about half of the approval rating (R² = 48 per cent) – but there is a link, as we might expect.
The importance of the economy in predicting elections is widely recognised in academic work.
As one paper recently put it, “If all you know is the state of the economy, you know pretty well how the incumbent party will do”. Nate Silver agreed – a composite measure of economic health was one of the pillars of his perfect predictions in 2012.
The fact that link appears to exists for the Tories is worrying for Labour. Until very recently, the economy had been the number one issue for voters throughout this parliament.
The growth of the past year, and the recent UKIP-fuelled focus on immigration, has changed that, but that’s more encouraging for the Tories than Labour – it’s another sign of the recovery.
This is why Labour are zeroing in on the NHS. It is the only issue on which they both have a significant lead and voters care much about (education and housing are not rated as top issues by most voters).
Immigration helps UKIP more than either party, but it helps the Tories before Labour – as their attempt to lead the news with it yesterday showed.
Labour can try and make the NHS the election’s pivotal issue, but this parliament has been defined by the economy. If GDP stays strong the left may face another five years in the wilderness.
This piece was originally published on the New Statesman on 30 July 2014.