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 rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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