The Tories will find it harder to justify austerity now growth has returned

As the economy accelerates, it will become increasingly difficult for Osborne to defend the 1% cap on public sector pay rises.

With the return of growth (some forecasters predict output as high as 3% next year), the Tories are increasingly confident that they can win the next election. While vulnerable to Labour's charge that this is a "recovery for the few, not the many", with living standards falling even as GDP rises, they argue that higher growth will soon translate into higher salaries. As George Osborne remarked after the publication of the most recent GDP figures, “If Britain is growing then the finances of Britain’s families will start to grow.” The unspoken assumption is that so, too, will the Tories’ poll ratings.

But as I write in this week's NS politics column, Labour doesn't buy this optimistic analysis. In its view, the link between higher growth and higher wages has been severed and will not be easily repaired. Ed Miliband’s team point to the pre-crash period, when incomes for millions of low-and middle-income earners stagnated even in times of strong growth, as evidence that the market can no longer be relied upon to deliver for the majority. In an economy as unequal as Britain’s, any gains quickly flow to the top. If there is wage growth before the election, it will be of the unbalanced kind seen in April, when high earners collected their deferred bonuses in order to benefit from the reduction in the top rate of tax (the one month since May 2010 in which real incomes rose).

A further problem for the Tories is the issue of public sector wages. In his most recent Budget, George Osborne extended the 1% cap on pay increases until 2015-16, entailing further real-terms cuts for workers. But with the return of growth, such austerity will become harder to justify; voters will want their slice of an expanding cake.

If, as the Tories hope, private sector earnings begin to rise, they will no longer be able to defend public sector pay restraint on the grounds of fairnes, while voters in general are likely to become less sympathetic to the case for deficit reduction as growth accelerates. One reason why Osborne imposed immediate cuts in 2010 was that he feared they would be harder to defend if he waited until a strong recovery was underway.

If the Tories want to win over the voters they will need to remain the largest party in 2015, they would be wise to offer some relief to the public sector. As Renewal, the Conservative group aimed at broadening the party's appeal among working class, northern and ethnic minority voters, has noted, the majority of Tory target seats have a higher than average share of public sector workers, including 60% of Labour-held targets and half of the top 20 Lib Dem-held targets. While the Tories are likely to pledge to cut taxes for all workers, in the form of a £12,500 personal allowance, they should also consider easing the squeee on the public sector.

George Osborne and Michael Gove listen to speeches at the Conservative conference in Manchester earlier this month. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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