Economic confidence at its lowest since the financial crash

Polls show increasing public discomfort with the economy -- but Labour is not capitalising on this o

Two polls today show that the public is increasingly pessimistic about the economy. A Guardian/ICM poll found economic confidence at its lowest level since just before the financial crash in 2008. Fifty-seven per cent of respondents said they were not confident about the state of the economy, while 42 per cent did, giving a net confidence index of -15 points. Since ICM began measuring financial confidence in 2001, it has only been lower once (July 2008).

A Times/Populus poll (£) has similarly poor results, with 79 per cent of voters saying they believe the country will fare "badly" over the next year, versus only 18 per cent who think it will do "well". This gives a net optimism score of -61, a 21 point drop since September. While the questions and indexes are slightly different in each poll, this too is the lowest score Populus has found since the time of the banking crisis, in January 2009.

There are clear reasons for this: unemployment is steadily increasing, growth predictions are constantly lowered, and the eurozone crisis is unsettling markets. All of this would appear to be bad news for the government and its austerity package, and a blessing for Labour.

However, this is not the case. The ICM poll found that 30 per cent still blame the slowdown on debts accrued by Labour, with only 24 per cent blaming the coalition's spending cuts. Meanwhile, the Populus survey found that 40 per cent of people trusted David Cameron and George Osborne to run the economy, while just 26 per cent said they had more faith in Ed Miliband and Ed Balls.

While both polls saw Labour keep its narrow lead (two points ahead with ICM and eight with Populus), these results on the economy show the extent to which the party is missing an open goal. Yesterday, Cameron admitted that the government may not reach its deficit reduction targets, telling the CBI conference that "getting debt under control is proving harder than anyone envisaged", partly because of sluggish growth. The Office for Budget Responsibility is expected to downgrade its forecast -- again -- next week, when Osborne makes his Autumn Statement.

The coalition's narrative that Labour's profligacy is entirely to blame for this crisis should not hold for much longer: their policies are doing little to help the recovery; indeed, are compounding the problem. As Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman put it: "Austerity in Britain is going really, really badly." Labour must step up its visibility and present a clear, thought out alternative strategy if it wants to seize the opportunity of growing public discomfort with the way the economy is headed.

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

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Theresa May "indifferent" towards Northern Ireland, says Alliance leader Naomi Long

The non-sectarian leader questioned whether the prime minister and James Brokenshire have the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the impasse at Stormont.

Theresa May’s decision to call an early election reflects her “indifference” towards the Northern Ireland peace process, according to Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, who has accused both the prime minister and her Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the political impasse at Stormont.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman, Long – who is running to regain her former Belfast East seat from the DUP for her non-sectarian party in June – accused the Conservatives of “double messaging” over its commitment to Northern Ireland’s fragile devolution settlement. The future of power-sharing province remains in doubt as parties gear up for the province’s fourth election campaign in twelve months.

Asked whether she believed the prime minister – who has been roundly criticised at Stormont for her decision to go to the country early – truly cared about Northern Ireland, Long’s assessment was blunt. “We have had no sense at any time, even when she was home secretary, that she has any sensitivity towards the Northern Ireland process or any interest in engaging with it at all... It speaks volumes that, when she did her initial tour when she was prime minister, Northern Ireland was fairly low down on her list.”

The timing of the snap election has forced Brokenshire to extend the deadline for talks for a fourth time – until the end of June – which Long said was proof “Northern Ireland and its problems were not even considered” in the prime minister’s calculations. “I think that’s increasingly a trend we’ve seen with this government,” she said, arguing May’s narrow focus on Brexit and pursuing electoral gains in England had made progress “essentially almost impossible”.

“They really lack sensitivity – and appear to be tone deaf to the needs of Scotland and Northern Ireland,” she said. “They are increasingly driven by an English agenda in terms of what they want to do. That makes it very challenging for those of us who are trying to restore devolution, which is arguably in the worst position it’s been in [since the Assembly was suspended for four years] in 2003.”

The decisive three weeks of post-election talks will now take place in the weeks running up to Northern Ireland’s loyalist parade season in July, which Long said was “indicative of [May’s] indifference” and would make compromise “almost too big an ask for anyone”. “The gaps between parties are relatively small but the depth of mistrust is significant. If we have a very fractious election, then obviously that timing’s a major concern,” she said. “Those three weeks will be very intense for us all. But I never say never.”

But in a further sign that trust in Brokenshire’s ability to mediate a settlement among the Northern Irish parties is deteriorating, she added: “Unless we get devolution over the line by that deadline, I don’t think it can be credibly further extended without hitting James Brokenshire’s credibility. If you continue to draw lines in the sand and let people just walk over them then that credibility doesn’t really exist.”

The secretary of state, she said, “needs to think very carefully about what his next steps are going to be”, and suggested appointing an independent mediator could provide a solution to the current impasse given the criticism of Brokenshire’s handling of Troubles legacy issues and perceived partisan closeness to the DUP. “We’re in the bizarre situation where we meet a secretary of state who says he and his party are completely committed to devolution when they ran a campaign, in which he participated, with the slogan ‘Peace Process? Fleece Process!’ We’re getting double messages from the Conservatives on just how committed to devolution they actually are.”

Long, who this week refused to enter into an anti-Brexit electoral pact with Sinn Fein and the SDLP, also criticised the government’s push for a hard Brexit – a decision which she said had been taken with little heed for the potentially disastrous impact on Northern Ireland - and said the collapse of power-sharing at Stormont was ultimately a direct consequence of the destabilisation brought about by Brexit.

 Arguing that anything other than retaining current border arrangements and a special status for the province within the EU would “rewind the clock” to the days before the Good Friday agreement, she said: “Without a soft Brexit, our future becomes increasingly precarious and divided. You need as Prime Minister, if you’re going to be truly concerned about the whole of the UK, to acknowledge and reflect that both in terms of tone and policy. I don’t think we’ve seen that yet from Theresa May.”

She added that the government had no answers to the “really tough questions” on Ireland’s post-Brexit border. “This imaginary vision of a seamless, frictionless border where nobody is aware that it exists...for now that seems to me pie in the sky.”

However, despite Long attacking the government of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” to handle the situation in Northern Ireland effectively, she added that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn had similarly failed to inspire confidence.

“Corbyn has no more sensitivity to what’s going on in Northern Ireland at the moment than Theresa May,” she said, adding that his links to Sinn Fein and alleged support for IRA violence had made him “unpalatable” to much of the Northern Irish public. “He is trying to repackage that as him being in some sort of advance guard for the peace process, but I don’t think that’s the position from which he and John McDonnell were coming – and Northern Irish people know that was the case.” 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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