Will unemployment sink the coalition?

Why Cameron can't ignore the electoral consequences of rising joblessness.

In February 2012 unemployment reached 8.4 per cent of the workforce, or 2.67 million people, according to the Office of National Statistics. The jobless total increased by 48,000 over the previous quarter, and with current polices it is only a matter of time before it reaches 3 million. On the other hand, this does not appear to be helping Labour very much, with a YouGov poll in the Sun earlier this month putting the Conservatives on 40 per cent in voting intentions compared with 38 per cent for Labour. From the 1950s to the 1980s governments ran scared of unemployment since it appeared toxic to the re-election chances of an incumbent party. In these years it appeared that a governing party would be rewarded in the polls if unemployment fell and punished if it rose. So what has happened to this relationship and can the coalition safely ignore the electoral consequences of rising unemployment? There are good reasons to think not, and there is a real chance that this issue will sink the coalition government at the next election in May 2015.

There were seventeen general elections between the first fully peacetime election in 1950 and the most recent one in 2010. The chart below shows the relationship between vote shares for the governing party and unemployment in the election year. The diamonds represent the elections and the striking feature is the strong negative relationship between unemployment and votes for the governing party, particularly in fourteen of the seventeen elections. In each of the fourteen elections the governing party, whether Labour or the Conservatives, took a big hit in their vote share if unemployment grew on their watch. This was most apparent in 2010 when unemployment reached 2.4 million under Labour and the party achieved the lowest vote share of any government in the era of mass democratic politics.

Unemployment and Votes for the Governing Party 1950-2010

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So what happened in the cluster of three elections in the chart which do not appear to fit the pattern? These were the elections in the Thatcher era between 1983 and 1992. Unemployment grew rapidly after the Conservatives won the 1979 election when the Thatcher government started to make rapid cuts in public spending and introduced very deflationary monetarist policies. As a consequence Conservative support in the polls started to decline rather rapidly and it is fairly clear that they would have lost the 1983 election were it not for four key factors. The first factor was Labour's split in 1981 which gave birth to the Social Democratic Party and greatly weakened the party electorally, since voters dislike a divided party. The second was the Falklands war in which the Conservatives managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and this raised their support dramatically overnight. The third was Michael Foot who may have been admired by many Labour Party members, but was very unpopular with the voters. Finally, there was the Labour manifesto of 1983 famously dubbed 'the longest suicide note in history' and this damaged support even more. Cumulatively this combination of factors put paid to the party's chances and served to protect the Conservatives from the consequences of their economic policies.

Once Mrs Thatcher had got over the hurdle of the 1983 election and more than 3 million unemployed, joblessness started to slowly decline and fell to 2.8 million by 1987 and to 2.7 million by 1992. As a result the Conservatives could claim that their policies were slowly but surely working, a claim which was successful as voters forgot what had happened in the early eighties. The key point here is that the relatively strong relationship between unemployment and votes for the governing party was overridden by a very unusual set of events in 1983. These events were rare by historical standards, since major British political parties do not split very often, and it is not very common for the country to win a short, sharp, legitimate war. This means that if events are momentous enough and produce sufficient cumulative bad news for the main opposition party, the impact of unemployment on voting is going to be greatly weakened. But as 1983 demonstrated it takes a great deal for this to happen.

So the key question is what are the chances of the coalition government repeating this and being insulated from the consequences of its economic policies in 2015? At the moment the chances look pretty slim. Unlike in the early eighties Labour is a united party despite the grumbling about Ed Miliband's leadership, and he is unlikely to face a leadership challenge in the present Parliament. Actually his popularity and that of the Labour Party is likely to increase as it becomes more and more apparent to the voters that Labour has been right about the economy and the Conservatives have got it wrong. The party will receive an additional boost if as seems likely Barack Obama is re-elected President of the United States. This is because the US economic strategy under Obama has been much closer to that advocated by Labour than to the government, and unlike Britain the early signs of a recovery in the US economy are now emerging. Overall the Labour Party has a very good story to tell about the economy in the run-up to 2015.

Events in the Eurozone are currently conspiring against the government. Even if the coalition were pursuing a growth strategy, it would largely be stymied by the Eurozone crisis. As is widely recognized the Euro bailout is all austerity and no prosperity so it is very likely to fail. Moreover the one success the government can claim, low borrowing costs in international financial markets, will be undermined if Britain loses its AAA credit rating as the deficit continues to rise. It may sound a bit far-fetched but I would not rule out a Labour landslide victory in 2015 if things go on as they are.

Paul Whiteley is Professor of Government at the University of Essex and Co-Director of the British Election Study.

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The struggles of Huma Abedin

On the behind-the-scenes story of Hillary Clinton’s closest aide.

In a dreary campaign, it was a moment that shone: Hillary Clinton, on the road to the caucus in Iowa, stopping at a Mexican fast-food restaurant to eat and somehow passing unrecognised. Americans of all political persuasions gleefully speculated over what her order – a chicken burrito bowl with guacamole – revealed about her frame of mind, while supporters gloated that the grainy security-camera footage seemed to show Clinton with her wallet out, paying for her own lunch. Here was not the former first lady, senator and secretary of state, known to people all over the world. This was someone’s unassuming grandmother, getting some food with her colleagues.

It might be unheard of for Clinton to go unrecognised but, for the woman next to her at the till, blending into the background is part of the job. Huma Abedin, often referred to as Clinton’s “shadow” by the US media, is now the vice-chair of her presidential campaign. She was Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the state department and has been a personal aide since the late 1990s.

Abedin first met Clinton in 1996 when she was 19 and an intern at the White House, assigned to the first lady’s office. She was born in Michigan in 1976 to an Indian father and a Pakistani mother. When Abedin was two, they moved from the US to Saudi Arabia. She returned when she was 18 to study at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Her father was an Islamic scholar who specialised in interfaith reconciliation – he died when she was 17 – and her mother is a professor of sociology.

While the role of “political body woman” may once have been a kind of modern maid, there to provide a close physical presence and to juggle the luggage and logistics, this is no longer the case. During almost 20 years at Clinton’s side, Abedin has advised her boss on everything from how to set up a fax machine – “Just pick up the phone and hang it up. And leave it hung up” – to policy on the Middle East. When thousands of Clinton’s emails were made public (because she had used a private, rather than a government, server for official communication), we glimpsed just how close they are. In an email from 2009, Clinton tells her aide: “Just knock on the door to the bedroom if it’s closed.”

Abedin shares something else with Clinton, outside of their professional ties. They are both political wives who have weathered their husbands’ scandals. In what felt like a Lewinsky affair for the digital age, in 2011, Abedin’s congressman husband, Anthony Weiner, resigned from office after it emerged that he had shared pictures of his genitals with strangers on social media. A second similar scandal then destroyed his attempt to be elected mayor of New York in 2013. In an ironic twist, it was Bill Clinton who officiated at Abedin’s and Weiner’s wedding in 2010. At the time, Hillary is reported to have said: “I have one daughter. But if I had a second daughter, it would [be] Huma.” Like her boss, Abedin stood by her husband and now Weiner is a house husband, caring for their four-year-old son, Jordan, while his wife is on the road.

Ellie Foreman-Peck

A documentary filmed during Weiner’s abortive mayoral campaign has just been released in the US. Weiner shows Abedin at her husband’s side, curtailing his more chaotic tendencies, always flawless with her red lipstick in place. Speaking to the New York Observer in 2007, three years before their marriage, Weiner said of his future wife: “This notion that Senator Clinton is a cool customer – I mean, I don’t dispute it, but the coolest customer in that whole operation is Huma . . . In fact, I think there’s some dispute as to whether Huma’s actually human.” In the film, watching her preternatural calm under extraordinary pressure, you can see what he means.

In recent months, Abedin’s role has changed. She is still to be found at Clinton’s side – as the burrito photo showed – but she is gradually taking a more visible role in the organisation overall, as they pivot away from the primaries to focus on the national race. She meets with potential donors and endorsers on Clinton’s behalf and sets strategy. When a running mate is chosen, you can be sure that Abedin will have had her say on who it is. There’s a grim symmetry to the way politics looks in the US now: on one side, the Republican candidate Donald Trump is calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country; on the other, the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton relies ever more on her long-time Muslim-American staffer.

Years before Trump, notable Republicans were trying to make unpleasant capital out of Abedin’s background. In 2012, Tea Party supporters alleged that she was linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and its attempt to gain access “to top Obama officials”. In her rare interviews, Abedin has spoken of how hurtful these baseless statements were to her family – her mother still lives in Saudi Arabia. Later, the senator and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain spoke up for her, saying that Abedin represented “what is best about America”.

Whether senior figures in his party would do the same now remains to be seen.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad