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.

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.

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