Time to think beyond the economy – is GDP the right target?

Policy should focus on wellbeing, opportunity and sustainability.

This week David Cameron launched the Big Society bank and sparked a new round of debate on whether "money makes the world go round" or "the best things in life are free". The Big Society is seen by some as a political cover story for cuts to public services but the idea behind it questions whether there is more to society than just the bottom line? Whether the pursuit of happiness is about more than money? Whether doing you bit, gives your life its meaning, rather than the job you do or the things your own?

Given Britain’s gloomy economic climate, the worst unemployment since 1995 and further cuts to public spending in the pipeline, our ‘age of austerity’ seems all encompassing. But back in 1968, Robert Kennedy famously questions whether GDP was the right measure of a healthy economy and of a good society:

The Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.

More than forty years on, politicians are still asking those questions.  A new report published by IPPR today report suggests policy should focus directly on wellbeing and range of the opportunities that people have. It concludes that every effort to rethink economic policy should be motivated by a consideration not only of "what works" but also of "to what ends".

Clearly there are reasons why GDP has remained for so long the primary measure of economic success. Governments have long taken the view that by promoting GDP growth they help a majority of the population achieve better lives. Historically a strong correlation existed between GDP, disposable income and employment. This provided greater access to material wealth; more desirable cars, houses, clothes, and the latest household and personal gadgets. But despite the advances brought about by GDP growth, there is a growing consensus among politicians that GDP on its own is no longer sufficient and our wellbeing does not just come from income, but from a wide range of sources.

On the other side of the pond, significant headway in measuring national wellbeing has been made in Canada with the Canadian Index of Wellbeing. It is an attempt to capture the quality of life experienced by Canadians. Here in the UK, the ONS launched a consultation exercise to find out what really matters to people from the people themselves. This found that family, friends, health, financial security, equality and fairness are fundamental in determining wellbeing. These initiatives should be encouraged and continued so we can identify what matters to people and how best we can directly support these areas.

By targeting wellbeing and opportunity we speak to the wider concerns of the population. We ask how people are doing before we ask how the economy doing? We recognise that there is "life beyond the bottom line" and that worthwhile lives extend beyond what we earn and consume. The big question that remains, is how to conclude a political consensus around wellbeing, opportunity and sustainability?

Amna Silim is a Researcher at IPPR

David Cameron launches The Big Society Capital fund at The London Stock Exchange. Photograph: Getty Images.
Cameron in Nuneaton. Photo: Getty
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Why fewer of us want a long-term relationship ... with a political party

In 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010. So what does the rise of swing voters mean for British politics?

For decades political parties have competed furiously for one of the great prizes of British politics: the affections of the swing voter. It wasn’t that long ago that there were relatively few political swingers: until the 1990s, fewer than a quarter of voters would switch parties from one election to the next.

Yet that once relatively rare breed is becoming increasingly common, which means party campaigners are going to have to come up with new tactical thinking. The British Election Study survey panels, conducted episodically over the last fifty years, are unique in that they are able to track the same voters from one election to the next, unlike more conventional opinion polls that only look at a snapshot of voters at a given time. Using these studies, you can identify the percentage of voters who switch their vote from one party to another between each pair of elections since 1966 when such data was first collected.

In 1966 only around 13 per cent of voters had changed their minds since the previous election in 1964. Since then, the proportion of swingers has been steadily increasing, and by 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010.

The increase in swing voters is pretty consistent. The only exceptions are between February and October 1974, when (understandably) fewer voters changed their minds in eight months than switched in the preceding four years, and between 1997 and 2001, when the electoral dominance of New Labour under Tony Blair held back the tide for a time. These two exceptions aside, the increase has been constant election-on-election.

A lot of vote shifting can go on even between elections where the overall result remains stable. In 2001, for example, more people switched votes than in any election before 1997, with a surprising level of turmoil beneath the surface stability. While these largely cancelled out on that occasion, it set the stage for more dramatic changes in the parties’ votes later on.

So British voters now seem more likely than ever to jump from party to party. But who exactly are these swingers? Are they disillusioned former party loyalists? Or have British voters simply stopped getting into a serious relationship with the parties in the first place? We can get some insight into this using data from the yearly British Social Attitudes Survey, looking at the number of respondents who say that they do not identify with any of the political parties (party identifiers tend to switch much less often) when they are asked ‘Generally speaking, do you think of yourself as a supporter of any one political party?’ and then ‘Do you think of yourself as a little closer to one political party than to the others?’ if they say no to the first question. The graph below combines data from 1984 to 2013. Each line represents people who were born in a different year. Higher lines mean that there are more people who do not identify with a political party. So, for instance, voters born in 1955 started with very low levels of non-identification (22 per cent), which have gradually risen to 44 per cent in the latest survey. Most of the lines on the graph go up over time, which shows that almost all generations are falling out of love with the parties.

However, an acquired taste in swinging among the older generations is dwarfed by the promiscuous younger generations – shown by the dashed lines – most of whom never form an attachment to a party at all. Each generation in the data has been less committed to the parties than the previous generation was at the same age, with around 60 per cent of the youngest generation – those born since 1985 – expressing no attachment to any political party.

Since most of this change has been a generational shift, it may be a long road back for the parties. Loyalty to parties is often handed down in families, with children inheriting their parents’ commitment to a party. Now that this process has broken down, and younger generations have lost their attachment to parties, they may in turn pass on this political detachment to their children.

The majority of younger voters have simply never grown up with the idea of getting into a long-term relationship with a political party, so they may never settle down. Many Labour MPs were outraged when it turned out that lots of the new members who joined up to vote for Jeremy Corbyn had voted for the Green Party just a few months before, but this may simply reflect the political approach of a generation who see parties as needing to earn their vote each time rather than commanding lasting, even unconditional loyalty.

If Britain’s newfound taste for swinging isn’t going to disappear any time soon, what does it mean for party competition? In the past most people had settled partisan views, which seldom changed. General elections could be won by attracting the relatively small group of voters who hadn’t made up their minds and could very easily vote for either of the two main parties, so political parties based their strategies around mobilising their core voters and targeting the few waverers. While they worried about traditional loyalists not turning up to the polls, the parties could be assured of their supporters’ votes as long as they got them to the voting booth.

Nowadays, swing voters are no longer a small section of the electorate who are being pulled back and forth by the parties, but a substantial chunk of all voters. This helps to explain why politicians have been so surprised by the sudden rise of new parties competing for groups previously thought to be reliable supporters. The new parties that have entered British politics have also allowed voters to express their views on issues that don’t fall neatly into traditional left– right politics such as immigration (UKIP) or Scottish independence (the SNP). This in turn has posed a dilemma for the traditional parties, who are pulled in multiple directions trying to stop their voters being tempted away.

This may just be the start. If the number of swing voters stays this high, the parties will have to get used to defending themselves on multiple fronts.

This is an extract from More Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box, edited by Philip Cowley and Robert Ford.