Ed Miliband and David Cameron during the service to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey, on June 4, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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There's no gratitude in politics - why the recovery might not save the Tories

If the debate moves on to more fertile Labour territory such as public services the Conservatives will likely struggle.

One of the big political surprises in Britain’s history came less than two months after VE Day, when the triumphant war leader, Winston Churchill, ran for re-election against the cerebral and relatively uncharismatic Clement Attlee. Churchill was defeated in a landslide. Historians mostly agree that whilst Churchill’s wartime record was respected, voters, and particularly returning soldiers, trusted Attlee’s Labour Party to provide the jobs, healthcare and welfare state that would make the peace worth living in. The UK’s recent struggles have been economic. But just as the ungrateful voters of 1945 turfed out Churchill, so the voters of 2015 could do the same to their own (economic) saviours, David Cameron and George Osborne.

The UK’s recovery is now in its second year, but it has yet to have a significant effect on the Conservatives’ popularity: in the latest poll their share is 28 per cent, 4 per cnet behind the Labour Party, which has maintained a similar lead since May 2013. One potential explanation is the stagnation in the real incomes of voters, as inflation has outstripped wage growth. That trend looks to be coming to an end, however, potentially ushering in a year of real wage growth coupled with a booming housing market, which could lead many voters to feel wealthier than at any point since the last election.

That will likely aid the Conservatives’ standing heading into 2015 and the polls are likely to narrow (as they do in the run-up to most general elections). But perhaps the Conservatives should be careful what they wish for. James Carville’s oft-misquoted campaign memo, "the economy, stupid", does not refer to an immutable law of politics. The economy is often the most important issue in elections, but by no means always. Indeed, when the economy was doing well, as it was in the UK from '96 -'07, other issues like healthcare and education took on the greatest salience (Chart 5).

Economic optimism in the UK is now at its highest level since records began in 1979. The salience of the economy as an issue is falling fast, whilst that of the NHS and education, Labour’s strongest suits, is rising. The significant lead the Conservative Party has on economic management looks likely to endure in the absence of an unforeseen downturn before the next election. But it also looks likely to become less important to the result.

The big battles of the next election will be fought over control of the agenda. If the health of the economy continues to fade as an issue and the debate moves on to more fertile Labour territory like the provision of public services then the Conservatives will likely struggle to overtake Ed Miliband’s party. The latest debacle over extremism in schools is just the kind of distraction that plays into Labour’s hands and just the kind the Tories have been instructed by campaign manager Lynton Crosby to avoid.

The saving graces for the Conservatives have long been assumed to be Ed Miliband’s weak personal brand and his party’s lingering association with economic failure. Yet the Conservatives’ own vulnerabilities look just as concerning. Cameron’s personal brand is strong but his party's remains stubbornly off-putting to much of the electorate. Forty per cent say they would never vote Conservative against 33 per cent who would not vote Labour. The Conservatives face a huge disadvantage under the current electoral system, which could see Labour become the largest party even if it loses the popular vote by up to 3 per cent. And of course there’s Ukip, which, while it takes votes from all parties, stands to be significantly more damaging to the Conservatives than to anyone else.

The European elections (where Ukip came first) probably showed the crest of the party’s popularity, at least for the next year or so, but the local elections, held on the same day, indicated that the party could have a disruptive effect in a variety of key swing seats, particularly in Essex and Thurrock, where Labour must win seats to become the biggest party.

A "super poll" of swing constituencies commissioned by Tory peer Lord Ashcroft just before the local elections indicated that high Ukip shares in areas like Thurrock would gift those seats to Labour, resulting in a majority for the party of 83. It should be noted, however, that a similar poll held in 2009 projected a Conservative majority of 70 which never materialised.

So what to conclude? More positive economic news should benefit the Conservatives, but could well prove a double-edged blade if voters conclude that it’s safe to switch to the party they prefer with cherished public services. Between now and the election, the Conservatives will do all they can to ensure the economy remains foremost in people’s minds, which is why the chart below is a key one to watch. If Labour can succeed in shifting the debate into other areas, as it previously accomplished with its proposal to freeze energy prices, then David Cameron may soon find himself joining the ranks of respected ex-prime ministers.

Richard Mylles is a political analyst at Absolute Strategy Research, an independent investment consultancy

Chart 5: Most important issues facing the UK

Source: ASR Ltd. / Ipsos Mori

Richard Mylles is a political analyst at Absolute Strategy Research, an independent consultancy based in London.

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage