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24 January 2023

The story behind Labour’s “Reagan Question”

Does Britain work better today than it did 13 years ago? Labour thinks its future lies in the answer.

By Anoosh Chakelian

“Ask yourself this,” Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, said to her audience at a robotics facility in east London on 5 January. “Are you and your family better off than you were 13 years ago?”

This is known as the “Reagan Question”, after Ronald Reagan’s closing remarks as the Republican nominee in the final presidential debate of 1980, addressed straight down the TV camera to the American people: “Ask yourself, are you better off now than you were four years ago?” Reagan won the election by a landslide. His question became the stuff of campaigning legend.

As with Keir Starmer using the language of Brexiteers for his party’s devolution proposal, the “Take Back Control Bill”, Reeves’s adoption of a line deployed by a Republican president is seen by Labour’s leadership as a show of confidence and the party’s willingness to reach out to voters in surprising ways.

The question wasn’t a throwaway rhetorical flourish though. The shadow Treasury team had examined Bank of England forecasts suggesting that inflation would fall fast this year (it currently stands at 10.5 per cent); they knew, however, that people would not suddenly feel better off, not least because lower inflation does not mean lower prices. Their strategy is backed up by exclusive polling for the New Statesman by Redfield & Wilton Strategies, which reveals that 64 per cent of British voters believe they are worse off than they were three, and also five, years ago. A majority (54 per cent) also believe they are now worse off than they were ten years ago.

It hasn’t always been this way, much to Labour’s electoral frustration. Even two years ago, when the New Statesman polled on this question, more people than not felt better off than they did in 2010. In that poll in May 2021 the largest group, 31 per cent, said they felt financially “better off now than in 2010” compared with 28 per cent who felt “worse off”, 31 per cent who felt “neither better nor worse off” and 10 per cent who didn’t know.

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Now, however, most Britons feel financially worse off than they did a decade ago. It’s little wonder: real wages are falling at the fastest pace since 2010 and remain below their pre-2008 crash level.

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The Labour frontbench is adding its own twist to the Reagan question. As Reeves put it in her speech: “Does anything in Britain work better today than it did 13 years ago?” Behind the scenes, Labour has been testing and developing the narrative of “things not working properly” for a while; Pat McFadden, the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, used the phrase “backlog Britain” last summer. When asked questions such as “can you get a doctor’s appointment easier than you could 13 years ago?”, “are schools improving?” or “can you catch a train on time?”, the answer from the British public is generally “no”, I’m told.

This Labour version of the Reagan question in particular should worry Tory strategists. One public opinion expert with connections in the governing party recently found a “total sense of exhaustion with the fact nothing seems to work” in focus groups, and said the word “shambles” stood out.

Yet the challenge for Labour is to avoid appearing too miserable, or too gleeful, about such strife. Asking questions about what could work better is thought to resonate more with voters than simply telling them “you’re poorer”.

That’s why there is “another side to the equation” of the Reagan question, according to a Labour source close to these discussions, which is for shadow ministers to present a positive and credible route to change. Hence the images of Starmer and Reeves at Davos, for example, framing themselves as a government-in-waiting.

Redfield & Wilton Strategies polled a weighted sample of 1,500 eligible voters in Great Britain on 11 January 2023 for the New Statesman.

[See also: Britain’s democratic rot has continued under Rishi Sunak]

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