Cameron and Osborne are benefiting after three years of a crippled economy. Photo: Getty.
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Will the economy hand Tories the election?

The recovery may be feeble, but voters are rewarding the Tories as GDP rises – and the 'cost-of-living' is half the issue it was in 2011.

What issues will decide next year’s general election? For the major parties, the challenge is making their issues the topic of national debate.

For the Tories that means focusing on the economy, immigration and crime.

For Labour, it means steering every news agenda towards health, education and housing.

The Tories are the more trusted stewards. Voters back them to safeguard our finances, control our borders and police the streets – despite three years of sluggish growth, uncurbed immigration levels and cuts in police numbers.

Nevertheless, they are far more trusted on each of those issues than Labour. But, if the Tories are trusted to apportion the money, voters would prefer Ed Miliband’s party spend it.

This reflects a trend across developed democracies. Voters want Scandinavian levels of spending but want to pay Texan-level taxes. They want left-wing parties when asked about their public services but right-wing ones when asked about actually managing the economy or country.

That is what makes Ed Balls’ speech today on taxes and wages interesting. While Labour are reportedly going to focus on the NHS over the summer, Balls is showing how Labour will challenge the economic recovery being trumpeted by the Coalition.

Balls is doing this even though the government’s economic approval rating has dramatically recovered in the past year, buoyed by near 4 per cent growth.

This is despite only a few voters thinking the economy is on the way to recovery. But more voters think the UK is at least now showing signs of it – which most didn’t in 2013.

And in welcome news for the country, if bad news for Labour, the number of voters feeling the cost-of-living crisis has halved in the past three years.

In October 2011, 49 per cent of people were worried they wouldn’t have enough money to live comfortably. Now 25 per cent are.

This is slightly at odds with what has happened to real wages over the past four years. As George Eaton noted today, “Labour will still be able to go into the general election and answer Ronald Reagan’s question – “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” – in the negative”.

That is because inflation has outstripped people’s wages throughout this parliament.

But this appears to have little effect on the government’s economic approval ratings.

Headline GDP appears to be the only statistic that matters. At first glance there is little link between GDP and economic approval.

But, by using a three-month rolling average of GDP, we can uncover a relationship. 

The data implies that if GDP growth were 0 per cent, the government's economic approval would be -30 per cent. But for every 1 per cent of quarterly GDP growth, their approval increases 24 per cent. The realtionship is not that strong – GDP growth explains only about half of the approval rating (R² = 48 per cent) – but there is a link, as we might expect.

The importance of the economy in predicting elections is widely recognised in academic work.

As one paper recently put it, “If all you know is the state of the economy, you know pretty well how the incumbent party will do”. Nate Silver agreed – a composite measure of economic health was one of the pillars of his perfect predictions in 2012.

The fact that link appears to exists for the Tories is worrying for Labour. Until very recently, the economy had been the number one issue for voters throughout this parliament.

The growth of the past year, and the recent UKIP-fuelled focus on immigration, has changed that, but that’s more encouraging for the Tories than Labour – it’s another sign of the recovery.

This is why Labour are zeroing in on the NHS. It is the only issue on which they both have a significant lead and voters care much about (education and housing are not rated as top issues by most voters).

Immigration helps UKIP more than either party, but it helps the Tories before Labour – as their attempt to lead the news with it yesterday showed.

Labour can try and make the NHS the election’s pivotal issue, but this parliament has been defined by the economy. If GDP stays strong the left may face another five years in the wilderness.

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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.