The Obama polling that inspired Labour's cost of living offensive

While Romney led on managing the economy and reducing the deficit, Obama led on living standards. Labour believes the latter is the key to victory in 2015.

Before Ed Miliband announced his plan to freeze energy prices for 20 months from May 2015, he and his aides knew that it would "be big". They had long been struck by polling showing that rising gas and electricity bills were voters’ primary concern, ranked above wages, employment and housing. But even they have been surprised by the extent to which the policy has defined political debate since the conference season. Three weeks on from Miliband’s speech, the Labour leader's team believe it has had even more impact than George Osborne’s 2007 pledge to raise the inheritance tax threshold to £1m, with "huge cut through to the public" in the words of one aide. (A poll published yesterday showed that voters rate it above all the other policies announced by the parties during the conference season.) To their satisfaction, the Tories have struggled to settle on a consistent line of attack, unsure whether to dismiss it as a "gimmick" or as dangerously "left-wing", or to match it in some form.

The policy was devised by Greg Beales (jokingly named "Mr Freeze" by his colleagues), Miliband’s director of strategy and planning, who had long urged the party to shift its focus away from the macroeconomy and towards living standards. It was a reorientation inspired by Barack Obama’s 2012 election campaign. In meetings with the Labour team in London and Washington DC, Obama aides including his pollster Joel Benenson emphasised how important the president’s stance on living standards had been to victory in tough times. A report on the election by the veteran Democrat Stan Greenberg for Miliband pointed to polls showing that while Mitt Romney had led on "handling the economy"(51-44%) and "reducing the federal budget deficit" (51-37%), Obama had led on understanding "the economic problems ordinary people in this country are having" (51-43%) and on "looking out for the middle class" (51-40%).

This left-right split is mirrored in the UK, where a recent ComRes poll found that voters think the Conservatives (42%) are more likely than Labour (33%) to maintain economic growth and keep public spending under control (47-28%), but also that they believe their own family would be better off under Labour (41-31%).

Labour is confident this trend will favour it in 2015. As the economy enters a post-crisis phase, the party believes voters will become less concerned with macro issues and more concerned with whether their family is sharing in the proceeds of growth.

After missing their original target of eliminating the structural deficit in one parliament, the Tories have sought to turn economic failure into political success by emulating Obama’s 2012 campaign message and urging voters to let them "finish the job". But they have failed to recognise that Obama was referring not to government borrowing but to living standards. As for the warning "not to give the keys to the guys who crashed the car in the first place" – similarly inspired by the US president – a Labour aide pointed out to me that Obama "actually ran on that line in the 2010 midterms and it was a disaster".

The Tories have derided Miliband’s focus on the "cost of living" as a distraction from the primary task of "fixing" the economy, but this message is ill suited to a time when 11 million people have had no increase in their real earnings since 2003. Aware of this, the Tories are preparing a barrage of cost-of-living measures for the Autumn Statement but, more than at any other point since 2010, they will be forced to fight on enemy territory. 

Barack Obama waves to supporters after his victory speech at McCormick Place on election night November 6, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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.