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Why Labour could win in 2015 even if the Tories are more trusted on the economy

In 1997, the Tories enjoyed a 22-point lead over Labour on "managing the economy" but with growth restored, voters decided it was safe to change captain.

Ed Miliband and David Cameron during the service to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey, on June 4, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

The economic recovery has barely begun but David Cameron and George Osborne already appear to be reaping the political benefits. The latest Guardian/ICM poll shows that support for their management of the economy has risen to 40 per cent from 28 per cent last month giving them a 16 point lead over Ed Miliband and Ed Balls. 

With growth likely to be purring along at around 2 per cent by 2015 is it game over for Labour? Not necessarily. It's true that economic approval ratings are frequently a reliable long-term indicator of the election result but it's worth noting the exceptions to this rule. Ahead of the 1997 election, as Balls likes to remind his colleagues, Labour trailed the Conservatives by seven points on "managing the economy" and by 22 points among those who said the issue was important, according to MORI's regular tracker. It was only after the party's victory that it established a consistent lead over the Tories. While voters believed the Conservatives would run UK PLC better, they still preferred Labour after years of sleaze and run-down public services. 

Source: Ipsos MORI 

It's possible, then, that Labour could win in 2015 despite not being trusted over the Conservatives on the economy (just as it leads today). Indeed, if growth returns as strongly as the Tories hope, the voters may conclude that it's safe to change captain now the storm has passed (as was the case in 1997). A Miliband government that would invest more heavily in areas such as housing and jobs and ensure that the proceeds of growth are distributed more fairly may be preferred by an electorate weary of small state conservatism. 

But it would be Panglossian for Labour to assume as much. As things stand, while the party retains a slight but consistent poll lead over the Tories, it is still viewed as less economically competent and its leader as less fit to be prime minister. Oppositions have managed to defy one of those handicaps in the past (as I've noted before, the Tories won in 1979 despite Jim Callaghan's 19-point lead over Margaret Thatcher as "the best prime minister") but I know of none that has defied both. 

It is already clear that the Tories' election campaign will focus on maximising both of these advantages. "Do you want David Cameron or Ed Miliband as prime minister?" they will ask, framing the contest as a presidential one, and "do you want to hand the keys back to the people who crashed the car in the first place?" It is a ruthless and simple message of the kind Labour still desperately lacks.