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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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

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