Voters don’t think politicians have good ideas on living standards: why?

All are blamed for the squeeze, all are being forced to compete on this terrain and all are struggling to be heard and believed, But the challenge is greatest for Labour.

If the next election is truly going to be a so-called living standards election – and that’s the assumption animating this year’s conference season - then all the parties have cause for concern. It turns out that, to date at least, voters aren’t impressed by what any of them has to say on the issue. 

In part, according to a major polling project undertaken for Resolution Foundation by YouGov, this is because they are all blamed to some degree for the big squeeze that households have endured (though Labour more than the Conservatives/coalition). No one is deemed to be innocent. But it’s also because when it comes to a wide range of policy issues on which all the parties say they want to act – tackling low pay, tax cuts for low and middle income households, reducing utility bills, boosting affordable housing or reducing the cost of childcare - the public aren’t attracted to much of what they have heard (though Labour has the edge over other parties on most of these issues).    

It’s not just that the leaders are yet to persuade the wider public that they have much to say; they are also a long way from winning over their own party supporters. Indeed, for a large swathe of the electorate the question of 'who governs' does not seem to matter terribly much when it comes to these key issues. Across a wide range of policy areas, the view that "it won't make much difference regardless of which party is running the government" was the most common response.

True, there are exceptions to this. The Conservatives score highly among their own supporters on the issue of targeting welfare payments to those who most need them -  on this nearly half (49%) say their party has especially good ideas. Labour supporters select tackling low pay as an area where their party is thought to be strong (28 per cent). Liberal Democrats chose "tax-cuts for low and middle income families" as an area where they felt their party had ideas (23 per cent). But even these fairly modest approval ratings are the exception.

Yet in most policy areas the parties receive low approval ratings, sometimes surprisingly so. Take the issue of improving access to affordable childcare, supposedly one of the zeitgeisty issues of this Parliament. A total of 5 per cent of Labour supporters select this out of a list of options as an area where their party has strong ideas - the same proportion of Labour supporters who think the Conservatives have good ideas on this issue, and marginally behind Labour voters’ assessment of the Lib Dems ideas (6 per cent). By way of comparison, 19% of Lib Dems supporters highlight childcare as an issue where their party performs well. Given that Labour dominated the debate on childcare for so long – and that it speaks so directly to their current theme of supporting family living standards – these ratings are pretty damning (and it’s no surprise that childcare is the headline announcement as Labour arrives at its conference).

All of which raises the question of why the electorate takes such a dim view of the parties’ positions to date on living standards?

Most obviously, it is very likely to reflect the fact that many voters know very little about what the parties are actually saying on these matters: our politicians’ ideas and arguments struggle to penetrate the fog of indifference that hangs over Westminster politics. It’s also true that, to varying degrees, the parties haven’t really said that much to date in terms of concrete policies: perhaps approval ratings for their ideas will pick up significantly as we get closer to the election and all the parties are forced to set out their stall?

Another explanation is that regardless of what the parties say – whether they sound like good policy ideas or not – people are just not prepared to believe them. This 'believability' argument reflects the familiar point about low levels of trust in politicians and the wider political system to deliver on promises. From this perspective, why give the parties credit for their ideas, even if in theory they might be good ones, when you don’t believe they will come to fruition?

Then comes the argument that many voters have now fully internalised the austerity argument to the extent that they just don’t believe the money will be available anytime soon to implement some of these proposed measures. Or, more specifically, if a party isn’t deemed to have earned overall credibility on the economy then whether or not their specific policies sound attractive may be a non-issue. It won’t have permission to be heard.  

Finally, it is possible to point the finger at the growing sense of fatalism, or more accurately deep scepticism about what acts of policy may achieve. Some voters believe that it doesn’t matter what the parties say on specific policy measures as none of it would make much difference anyway. The smallness of what they hear politicians talking about contrasts with the bigness of the challenges posed by globalisation, technology and trade.  The evidence to back up this fatalistic interpretation is a bit thin though attitudes do seem to have tilted in this direction over recent months. Back in April 50 per cent of voters felt that it should be possible for a government with the right policies to ensure that overall growth in the economy translates into steadily rising family living standards, and 35 per cent disagreed. Today the public is evenly split (41 per cent either way). It’s noteworthy that this increased policy-pessimism has coincided with an upturn in households’ optimism about their own prospects. 

Whatever the exact interpretation, it’s beyond doubt that each of the parties faces high stakes. All are blamed for the squeeze, all are being forced to compete on this terrain whether they like it or not, all are struggling to be heard and believed. A joyless recovery that stretches from now all the way to the election would leave the coalition parties incredibly exposed. Yet the cynical public mood is perhaps most challenging of all for Labour: its chosen pitch is that the return of growth alone won’t suffice and that only sweeping economic reform is capable of restoring the golden thread between national economic recovery and family living standards. Which means that it, more than anyone else, needs to convince a disenchanted electorate of both its overall economic credibility and the merits of its headline proposals. A tall order, but surely not an impossible one. 

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation

David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg attend a ceremony at Buckingham Palace to mark the Duke of Edinburgh's 90th birthday on June 30, 2011. Photograph: Getty Images.

Gavin Kelly is a former adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.