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.

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. 

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.

George Eaton is political editor of 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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