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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Five things we've learned from Labour conference

The party won't split, Corbynite divisions are growing and MPs have accepted Brexit. 

Labour won't split anytime soon

For months, in anticipation of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election, the media had speculated about the possibility of a Labour split. But the party’s conference confirmed that MPs have no intention of pursuing this course (as I had long written). They are tribally loyal to Labour and fear that a split would prove electorally ruinous under first-past-the-post. Many still expect Theresa May to hold an early general election and are focused on retaining their seats.

Rather than splitting, Corbyn’s opponents will increase their level of internal organisation in a manner reminiscent of the left’s Socialist Campaign Group. The “shadow shadow cabinet” will assert itself through backbench policy committees and, potentially, a new body (such as the proposed “2020 group”). Their aim is to promote an alternative direction for Labour and to produce the ideas and organisation that future success would depend on.

MPs do not dismiss the possibility of a split if their “hand is forced” through a wave of deselections or if the left achieves permanent control of the party. But they expect Labour to fight the next election as a united force.

Neither the Corbynites nor the rebels have ultimate control 

Corbyn’s second landslide victory confirmed the left’s dominance among the membership. He increased his winning margin and triumphed in every section. But beyond this, the left’s position is far more tenuous.

The addition of Scottish and Welsh representatives to the National Executive Committee handed Corbyn’s opponents control of Labour’s ruling body. Any hope of radically reshaping the party’s rule book has ended.

For weeks, Corbyn’s allies have spoken of their desire to remove general secretary Iain McNicol and deputy leader Tom Watson. But the former is now safe in his position, while the latter has been strengthened by his rapturously received speech.

Were Corbyn to eventually resign or be defeated, another left candidate (such as John McDonnell) would struggle to make the ballot. Nominations from 15 per cent of MPs are required but just six per cent are committed Corbynites (though selection contests and seat losses could aid their cause). It’s for this reason that allies of the leader are pushing for the threshold to be reduced to five per cent. Unless they succeed, the hard-left’s dominance is from assured. Were an alternative candidate, such as Clive Lewis or Angela Rayner, to succeed it would only be by offering themselves as a softer alternative.

Corbynite divisions are intensifying 

The divide between Corbyn’s supporters and opponents has recently monopolised attention. But the conference showed why divisions among the former should be interrogated.

Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis, an early Corbyn backer, was enraged when his speech was amended to exclude a line announcing that Labour’s pro-Trident stance would not be reversed. Though Lewis opposes renewal, he regards unilateralism as an obstacle to unifying the party around a left economic programme. The longer Corbyn remains leader, the greater the tension between pragmatism and radicalism will become. Lewis may have alienated CND but he has improved his standing among MPs, some of whom hail him as a bridge between the hard and soft left.

Elsewhere, the briefing against McDonnell by Corbyn allies, who suggested he was an obstacle to recruiting frontbenchers, showed how tensions between their respective teams will continue.

Labour has accepted Brexit

Ninety four per cent of Labour MPs backed the Remain campaign during the EU referendum. But by a similar margin, they have accepted the Leave vote. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, both long-standing eurosceptics, confirmed that they would not seek to prevent Brexit.

Owen Smith called for a referendum on the eventual deal during his leadership campaign. But with some exceptions, such as Angela Eagle, most of his backers have rejected the idea. Though 48 per cent of the electorate voted Remain, MPs emphasise that only 35 per cent of constituencies did. Some still fear an SNP-style surge for Ukip if Labour seeks to overturn the outcome.

The debate has moved to Britain’s future relationship with Europe, most notably the degree of free movement. For Labour, like Theresa May, Brexit means Brexit.

Corbyn will not condemn deselections 

The Labour leader could have won credit from MPs by unambiguously condemning deselection attempts. But repeatedly invited to do so, he refused. Corbyn instead defended local parties’ rights and stated that the “vast majority” of MPs had nothing to fear (a line hardly reassuring to those who do). Angela Eagle, Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle are among the rebels targeted by activists.

Corbyn can reasonably point out that the rules remain the same as under previous leaders. MPs who lose trigger ballots of their local branches face a full and open selection. But Labour’s intensified divisions mean deselection has become a far greater threat. MPs fear that Corbyn relishes the opportunity to remake the parliamentary party in his own images.  And some of the leader’s allies hope to ease the process by reviving mandatory reselection. Unless Corbyn changes his line, the issue will spark continual conflict. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.