A lukewarm electorate

The latest polls show voter disillusionment, and support for the Tories coming mainly from the rich

It's easy to spin numbers: pick and choose the figures and, bang, you have a news story from the latest poll.

But the overwhelming picture from the polls we have seen over the past few days (and weeks) is that the general public is not particularly enthused about either party. An Ipsos/MORI poll for the Observer at the weekend put the Conservatives on 43 per cent and Labour on 26 per cent ("Tory surge defeats Labour comeback!!!" -- exclamation marks my own), while a ComRes poll for the Independent today shows the Tories with 38 per cent and Labour with 29 ("Tories are a party for the rich, say voters").

Although the UK Polling Report suggests that the 17-point spike (also shown in a ComRes poll a few weeks ago) was an anomaly, all we can tell with any certainty is that it's a close call. Voters are hard to predict in these politically disillusioned times.

Toby Helm and Marina Watson Peláez in the Observer said:

Many MPs believe the volatility in the polls is evidence that voters are no longer loyal to any one party. When the economic news appears good, voters are less inclined to think ill of the government of the day, but when things look rough they take against it.

This is supported by today's ComRes poll in the Independent, which shows yet more rumbling evidence that we could be on course for a hung parliament, which my colleague Mehdi blogged about early this month. If the figures in the poll were repeated at a general election, the Tories would be five seats short of an overall majority.

The poll contains some interesting details. As its headline suggests, a majority of people agreed with the statement that "a Conservative government would mainly represent the interests of the well-off rather than ordinary people" by a margin of 52 to 44.

A majority of 49 per cent disagreed that "the Conservative Party offers an appealing alternative to the Labour Party", while 45 per cent agreed.

These are very fine margins. It shows, certainly, that the Tories have not succeeded in their mission to rebrand themselves as the progressive party of the centre, but it also displays a lack of true conviction either way on the part of voters.

More tellingly, perhaps, the poll showed that the only social group among which the Tories enjoy a clear lead is the top AB group, where they are sailing ahead by 20 points. In all other groups, the two parties are neck-and-neck. So, the only group of whose support the Tories can be sure is their core coterie anyway. It demonstrates once again -- if it needed demonstrating -- who stands to gain from a Conservative government.

Perhaps we don't need to worry that the politicians are starting a class war -- we're on to it ourselves.

 

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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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The 2017 Budget will force Philip Hammond to confront the Brexit effect

Rising prices and lost markets are hard to ignore. 

With the Brexit process, Donald Trump and parliamentary by-election aftermath dominating the headlines, you’d be forgiven for missing the speculation we’d normally expect ahead of a Budget next week. Philip Hammond’s demeanour suggests it will be a very low-key affair, living up to his billing as the government’s chief accounting officer. Yet we desperately need a thorough analysis of this government’s economic strategy – and some focused work from those whose job it is to supposedly keep track of government policy.

It seems to me there are four key dynamics the Budget must address:

1. British spending power

The spending power of British consumers is about to be squeezed further. Consumers have propped up the economy since 2015, but higher taxes, suppressed earnings and price inflation are all likely to weigh heavily on this driver for growth from now on. Relatively higher commodity prices and the sterling effect is starting to filter into the high street – which means that the pound in the pocket doesn’t go as far as it used to. The dwindling level of household savings is a casualty of this situation. Real incomes are softer, with poorer returns on assets, and households are substituting with loans and overdrafts. The switch away from consumer-driven growth feels well and truly underway. How will the Chancellor counteract to this?

2. Lagging productivity

Productivity remains a stubborn challenge that government policy is failing to address. Since the 2008 financial crisis, the UK’s productivity performance has lagged Germany, France and the USA, whose employees now produce in an average four days as much as British workers take to produce in five. Perhaps years of uncertainty have seen companies choose to sit on cash rather than invest in new production process technology. Perhaps the dominance of services in our economy, a sector notorious hard in which to drive new efficiencies, explains the productivity lag. But ministers have singularly failed to assess and prioritise investment in those aspects of public services which can boost productivity. These could include easing congestion and aiding commuters; boosting mobile connectivity; targeting high skills; blasting away administrative bureaucracy; helping workers back to work if they’re ill.

3. Lost markets

The Prime Minister’s decision to give up trying to salvage single market membership means we enter the "Great Unknown" trade era unsure how long (if any) our transition will be. We must also remain uncertain whether new Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) are going to go anyway to make up for those lost markets.

New FTAs may get rid of tariffs. But historically they’ve never been much good at knocking down the other barriers for services exports – which explains why the analysis by the National Institute for Economic and Social Research recently projected a 61 per cent fall in services trade with the EU. Brexit will radically transform the likely composition of economic growth in the medium term. It’s true that in the near term, sterling depreciation is likely to bring trade back into balance as exports enjoy an adrenal currency competitive stimulus. But over the medium term, "balance" is likely to come not from new export market volume, but from a withering away of consumer spending power to buy imported goods. Beyond that, the structural imbalance will probably set in again.

4. Empty public wallets

There is a looming disaster facing Britain’s public finances. It’s bad enough that the financial crisis is now pushing the level of public sector debt beyond 90 per cent of our gross domestic product (GDP).  But a quick glance at the Office for Budget Responsibility’s January Fiscal Sustainability Report is enough to make your jaw drop. The debt mountain is projected to grow for the next 50 years. All else being equal, we could end up with an incredible 234 per cent of debt/GDP by 2066 – chiefly because of the ageing population and rising healthcare costs. This isn’t a viable or serviceable level of debt and we shouldn’t take any comfort from the fact that many other economies (Japan, USA) are facing a similar fate. The interest payable on that debt mountain would severely crowd out resources for vital public services. So while some many dream of splashing public spending around on nationalising this or that, of a "universal basic income" or social security giveaways, the cold truth is that we are going to be forced to make more hard decisions on spending now, find new revenues if we want to maintain service standards, and prioritise growth-inducing policies wherever possible.

We do need to foster a new economic model that promotes social mobility, environmental and fiscal sustainability, with long-termism at its heart. But we should be wary of those on the fringes of politics pretending they have either a magic money tree, or a have-cake-and-eat-it trading model once we leap into the tariff-infested waters of WTO rules.

We shouldn’t have to smash up a common sense, balanced approach in order for our country to succeed. A credible, centre-left economic model should combine sound stewardship of taxpayer resources with a fairness agenda that ensures the wealthiest contribute most and the polluter pays. A realistic stimulus should be prioritised in productivity-oriented infrastructure investment. And Britain should reach out and gather new trading alliances in Europe and beyond as a matter of urgency.

In short, the March Budget ought to provide an economic strategy for the long-term. Instead it feels like it will be a staging-post Budget from a distracted Government, going through the motions with an accountancy exercise to get through the 12 months ahead.

Chris Leslie MP was Shadow Chancellor in 2015 and chairs Labour’s PLP Treasury Committee

 

 

 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour’s backbench Treasury Committee and was shadow Chancellor in 2015.