It’s living standards, stupid. Why a rising tide won't lift the Conservative boat

When Cameron derides Miliband for not wanting to talking about the economy, he forgets that, for most voters, living standards are the economy.

When challenged to justify their belief that they can win the next general election, the Tories espouse the view first expressed by Bill Clinton’s campaign strategist James Carville in 1992: “It’s the economy, stupid.” With growth forecast to be as high as 3 per cent next year, they are confident that a path to victory is opening up.

To Labour’s criticism that this is a “recovery for the few, not the many”, with living standards falling even as GDP rises, they urge patience. In the argot of the Treasury, wages are a “lagging indicator” and higher output will soon translate into higher salaries. As George Osborne remarked after the publication of the most recent GDP figures, “If Britain is growing then the finances of Britain’s families will start to grow.” The unspoken assumption is that so, too, will the Tories’ poll ratings.

For Labour, this optimistic analysis proves that the Conservatives have failed to grasp that the crisis is not merely cyclical but structural. The link between higher growth and higher wages has been severed and will not be easily repaired. Ed Miliband’s team points to the pre-crash period, when incomes for millions of low-and middle-income earners stagnated even in times of strong growth, as evidence that the market can no longer be relied upon to deliver for the majority. In an economy as unequal as Britain’s, any gains quickly flow to the top. If there is wage growth before the election, it will be of the unbalanced kind seen in April, when high earners collected their deferred bonuses in order to benefit from the reduction in the top rate of tax (the one month since May 2010 in which real incomes rose).

After successfully shifting the debate away from the deficit and towards living standards, Labour believes that the Tories are now stranded in enemy territory. The more they trumpet their success in reducing government borrowing and reviving growth, the more conspicuous their failure to deliver on wages becomes. Miliband’s team was stunned by David Cameron’s recent assertion at Prime Minister’s Questions that the Labour leader only wanted to talk about the “cost of living” because “he does not have an economic policy any more”. As one senior strategist told me, “For any normal voter, living standards are the economy.”

In a tacit acknowledgement of this, the Conservatives are finalising their response to Miliband’s proposed energy price freeze. George Osborne is poised to use his Autumn Statement on 4 December to announce the removal of some green charges from consumers’ bills and to launch a new assault on Miliband’s record as energy secretary. But Labour is unfazed by this manoeuvre, arguing that its policy has a “longer shelf life”. By the time of the election, after further price increases, it is Miliband’s freeze that will still look like the most attractive offer.

Without a good story to tell on living standards, the Conservatives will be forced to run on their macroeconomic record in 2015. Growth is likely to pass its pre-recession peak at some point next year and Osborne may come close to eliminating the bulk of the deficit by the time of the election. But this narrative of success risks undermining their warning that the economy is too fragile for voters to hand Ed Miliband and Ed Balls the keys to No 10. As one Labour figure put it to me, “If they’re saying that the war’s been won, then people might start asking, ‘How do we win the peace?’” The same dynamic that led voters to prefer the modest Clement Attlee to Winston Churchill in 1945 could lead them to favour Miliband over Cameron 70 years later.

Before the return of growth, the Conservatives drew comfort from the Prime Minister’s superior personal ratings. They have long believed that by framing the election as a presidential contest – do you want Cameron or Miliband as your prime minister? – they can overturn Labour’s lead. Yet history shows that a well-liked (or, more accurately, less disliked) leader is no guarantee of electoral success. In the final poll before the 1979 election, Jim Callaghan enjoyed a 19-point lead over Margaret Thatcher as “the best prime minister” but the Tories still won a majority of 44 seats. Similarly, in the 1970 election, Harold Wilson's 23-point lead over Ted Heath failed to prevent Labour suffering a decisive defeat.

Cameron and Osborne take inspiration from the Tories’ unlikely triumph in 1992, the first campaign in which they were involved, but they have forgotten one important ingredient: a change of prime minister. In a recent conversation, one shadow cabinet minister cited Gordon Brown’s “seven years theory” (as described in Damian McBride’s memoir) as evidence of why Cameron will struggle to deliver a Conservative victory.

According to this rule, after a politician has spent this long in the public eye, the voters invariably start to tire of them. Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair were insulated from defeat by the large majorities they won in their pomp but this luxury is not available to Cameron. Unless he can increase the Conservatives’ vote share, Labour will almost certainly be the largest party after the election. Miliband continues to retain the support of more than a quarter of 2010 Liberal Democrat voters, a swing greater than the cumulative increase in the Conservative vote between 1997 and 2010.

The Tories’ “blue-collar” modernisers recognise that, to adapt Carville, “It’s living standards, stupid” is now a more appropriate slogan. But rebranding the party as one genuinely committed to sharing the proceeds of growth will be the work of a decade, not just 18 months. In the age of the wageless recovery, the Tories are about to discover that a rising economic tide no longer lifts the Conservative boat.

Rafael Behr returns next week

David Cameron with Ed Miliband as they stand in Westminster Hall ahead of an address by Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on June 21, 2012 . Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.