Ed Miliband speaks with David Cameron before listening to Angela Merkel addressing both Houses of Parliament in the Palace of Westminster on February 27, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Growth is up, unemployment is down – but Labour's stubborn poll lead remains

On the Labour side there is relief and a sprinkling of surprise that Tory popularity isn’t rising in sync with GDP.

When George Osborne’s plan for the economy was obviously failing, Conservative MPs had the consolation of understanding why they were losing to Ed Miliband. Now that the recovery is established, they find Labour’s lead in opinion polls mystifying. It is disorienting in a race to feel sure of having overtaken someone yet still see him out in front.

On the Labour side there is relief and a sprinkling of surprise that Tory popularity isn’t rising in sync with gross domestic product. For Miliband, this is vindication of the decision last autumn to focus all of Labour’s firepower on the cost of living. He judged that the Treasury was neglecting the causes of domestic hardship and was complacent about the scale of public anger.

Even Milisceptics admit it was a pivotal moment, flummoxing Downing Street and restoring opposition spirits after a despon­dent summer. “If he hadn’t pulled it off we’d be behind in the polls by now,” says one shadow minster. “Everyone would be talking about whether Andy [Burnham] or Yvette [Cooper] would be a better leader.”

Succession gossip is constant in all parties because there are always more egos than vacancies at the top. What matters is not the existence of speculation but how much of it is public. Labour jitters are eclipsed by Tory neurosis. Boris Johnson’s candidacy is openly discussed as if the moribundity of David Cameron’s leadership is a given.

It needn’t be. Miliband’s aides don’t claim to have won any big economic arguments, only to have shifted views of what the argument is about. The Tories are still good at convincing people that any hardship is a consequence of Labour’s misspent rule.

Oppositions can only complain, while governments can act. Thus the Budget was stuffed with devices to rebut the charge of Tory indifference to hardship: subsidies for childcare; support for new homebuyers; tax cuts for low earners; relief for bingo players. Labour dismisses Osborne’s interventions as gimmicks that are “too little, too late”, which is what oppositions say when governments do things that might be popular.

Yet Miliband knows he needs to refresh his attack or face another morale-sapping loss of momentum. He needs to persuade people that the things they don’t like about the UK economy will never change as long as the Tories are in charge because job insecurity, miserable wages and corporate fat-cattery are what Conservatives stand for. In this view, Osborne and Cameron have cooked up a bogus recovery that feeds their friends and leaves crumbs for everyone else.

The challenge is making the case without sounding spiteful. Tories cast any Labour argument about wealth distribution as an attack on honest aspiration and a threat to confiscate middle-class salaries. Business leaders are suspicious of the opposition. That exercises Ed Balls more than Miliband, although anyone who imagines the Labour leader as an anti-capitalist agitator ignores the years he served as a Treasury adviser. As a guide to striking the right tone, aides have been studying Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address, delivered on 28 January, in which he promised “new ladders of opportunity” for Americans to whom the benefits of growth are not trickling down.

There is a tension between the appetite for populist attacks on the undeserving rich and the need to reassure wary voters that a Labour government is for everyone and no cause for alarm. Bashing bankers and deriding Downing Street Etonians get pulses racing on the left but they convey a hint of menace that sits uneasily with Miliband’s more inclusive, optimistic “one nation” rhetoric. Activists grumble that “one nation” doesn’t sell on the doorstep.

There is no such dilemma in Downing Street. The terms of the Tory campaign are locked down: Labour burned down the house; Cameron is rebuilding it; give him time to finish the job; beware the arsonists Miliband and Balls offering incendiary debt and taxes. Throw in a referendum on EU membership and you have a formula that every Tory can unite behind. Except they aren’t united. The message has been pumped out loud and clear, the economy is up, unemployment is down and Labour’s stubborn little lead won’t die.

Cameron’s few cheerleaders insist the Tory vote share is a lagging indicator, tracking good economic news but with a delay. In support of this thesis they point to a small but discernible narrowing trend in the polls. Give it time, they say, and Miliband’s freakish endurance will end. Besides, the argument continues, voting intention is just one of three classic general election predictors and by no means the most reliable. On the others – who is trusted to run the economy; who makes the best leader – Cameron is ahead.

A similar view can be found in Labour circles, expressed as a prayer that Tory infighting might drag Cameron down before a wave of economic confidence carries him to safety. Yet Miliband’s allies speculate (as much in hope as expectation) that the economy may have boosted the Tories as much as it ever will. The Chancellor says his plan has worked and that his Budget brings blessed relief to the nation’s toiling classes. Maybe everyone who is inclined to buy that story is already voting Tory and no one else is listening.

The evidence is inconclusive. We know only that the opposition can sustain a lead through four quarters of good economic news. But for how much longer? Cameron and Osborne think the laws of political gravity will kick in to their advantage. They feel that the economic argument has been settled in their favour and that it is only a matter of time before the opinion polls confirm that they are winning.

Such unquestioning confidence helps explain why they aren’t. 

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Russia's Revenge

Getty
Show Hide image

Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

0800 7318496