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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Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.