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?

Getty
Show Hide image

The BBC's Question Time shows how narrow our establishment really is

 35 per cent of all panellists in the show's history attended Oxford or Cambridge.

In February the Sutton Trust published a report digging into the backgrounds of professionals across a wide range of industries and the findings pointed to one unambiguous conclusion: in the upper echelons of society, the privileged still dominate, with wildly disproportionate numbers attending private schools and Oxford or Cambridge University.

But how does this actually manifest itself? We have spent some time crunching the data on what we think is an indicative snapshot of the establishment: the BBC’s Question Time.

Each week, David Dimbleby is joined by politicians, journalists and other opinion formers, who together represent the spectrum of opinions it is acceptable to have in public life. Looking at this pool of people is better than analysing something as narrow as, say, Members of Parliament because it encompasses a wider subset of people who make up the ‘establishment’ - politicians, journalists, activists, business leaders and cultural figures too. But is this establishment truly representative? Does the panel truly reflect Britain at large?

The short answer is “no”.

And this is clear simply by looking at the gender split on the panel: Throughout the show’s history only 35 per cent of panellists have been women - though of the shows broadcast in 2015, this rose to a slightly less dire 42 per cent. And when women have appeared on the programme, producers have been drawing from a smaller pool - with women more likely to put in repeat performances. Shirley Williams is the most ubiquitous panellist, having put in 55 appearances on the show.

But the real meat of our digging comes from research into universities.

To find this out, we took the data on appearances on the show since it began in 1979, and matched each panellist with the universities they attended. For the approximately 1500 panellists, we relied on publicly available information, and we were able to find data on around 85 per cent of panellists. Some of the data we used will almost certainly contain errors - but we’re broadly confident that our findings hold up. Even if the following numbers are not precise, they certainly represent the magnitude of the figures involved.

In an echo of the Sutton Trust’s findings, Oxford and Cambridge are massively over-represented. 35 per cent of all panellists since 1979 attended Oxbridge - and if you count it by the number of appearances, as a measure of who is sat around the panel on each show, 42 per cent of the seats in the show’s history have been occupied by Oxbridge graduates (and this doesn’t count Christ Church, Oxford, alumnus David Dimbleby, nor his Oxford predecessors Robin Day or Peter Sissons in the host’s seat).

Graduates of “Post-92” institutions, the so-called “New Universities” make up just 3 per cent of panellists.

93 per cent of every episode of Question Time ever broadcast have included an Oxbridge graduate. And amazingly, this got worse in 2015, where not a single episode was broadcast without Oxbridge representation. Our hypothesis is that any attempts at positive discrimination are cancelled out by the professionalisation of the political classes, as many non-university attendees early in the show’s history were people from a trade union background. One trend over the course of the show is the decline in the number of guests who haven’t been to university at all (and yes, that’s despite Nigel Farage appearing what feels like almost every damn week).

Of the top 20 most recurring panellists, half went to Oxbridge. By comparison, less than 1 per cent of the UK population went to Oxford or Cambridge.

Measuring which institutions get the most graduates onto Question Time also enables us to build a new league table. The best represented institution over the show’s history is women-only Newnham College, Cambridge - with graduates like Diane Abbott, Patricia Hewitt and Mary Beard, 76 of its alumnae have made it on to the Question Time stage.

What’s particularly amazing about this is that Newnham only takes on about 500 students per year. Second in the list is the LSE - with 54 different alumni appearances. And this is despite LSE taking in 10,000 new students every year. The best-represented post-92 institution is Middlesex University, with just 5 panellists over 36 years, despite taking on 23,000 students every year.

This makes for distressing reading - not least because both of us attended post-92 institutions. Was our hard work for nothing? Does Question Time suggest that the gates to the establishment forever remain firmly bolted shut to us?

To be clear, we don’t entirely blame BBC for these findings - nor would we want these figures to be used to make foolish allegations about “BBC bias”. The BBC is more worried about party political representation - and as our findings make clear, the producers of Question Time are clearly drawing from a pool of people who are already overwhelmingly dominated by Oxbridge.

Whether Oxbridge’s dominance is a symptom or a cause is up for debate. Looking at a year-by-year comparison since 1979, what’s most striking is how little has changed. Though we like to believe that society is more progressive now than it was in the dark old days, Oxford and Cambridge still dominate the upper echelons of public life.

More than 1500 panellists have appeared on Question Time over the last 36 years. They were selected due to their role in forming or reflecting the opinions held by the nation on some of the most important issues we have and will face. Is it really right that the less than 1 per cent of the population who attended Oxford or Cambridge Universities should have such a loud voice?

James O’Malley tweets as @Psythor, Blakeley Nixon tweets as @BlakeleyNixon.