There is plenty of evidence to suggest that expanding public ownership is popular with the public. But what matters in delivering reform is not the policies themselves, but rather the perception that a party can do it without crashing the economy.
That was the key problem with Jeremy Corbyn’s 2017 and 2019 manifestos. The measures won plaudits. The polls pointed to public support. But few Britons felt they could trust Labour under Corbyn to competently deliver public ownership without any material damage to either the country or the median voter’s financial position.
Right now, a similar thing is happening with a very different set of policies. The interesting thing about Kwasi Kwarteng’s “mini-budget” on 23 September (though there was nothing “mini” about it) was that many of the headline measures were warmly received by voters. The 1 percentage point cut to the basic rate of income tax is backed by 63 per cent of voters, according to Deltapoll. The reform to stamp duty is backed by 61 per cent. And the reversal of the rise in National Insurance contributions is supported by 59 per cent.
These are all popular policies. And yet, in a way, that doesn’t really matter – because, overall, the Budget very much is not. Some 63 per cent of people, according to YouGov, believe the Budget will benefit rich people more than poor people. Just 19 per cent regard the Budget as fair, and only 19 per cent feel they themselves will be better off as a consequence. When it comes to growing the economy – the debate of the decade, replacing the tried and tired issue of debt and deficit – just 19 per cent think the measures will prove effective. And not only that, but just 10 per cent of the public approve of Kwasi Kwarteng as Chancellor.
These numbers don’t suggest that the Tories’ economic competence is being perceived positively. Rather, they suggest that voters feel the cost-of-living crisis – the number one issue facing Britons today – is not being prioritised by the government.
It is common for voters to whinge about bills, in good times and bad. And yet the deep-seated, cross-demographic anxiety about the state of the national economy makes numbers like these more serious than negative reactions to “normal times” budgets. Public attention is focused on economic announcements. And the public does not like what it is hearing.
The Conservative Party’s reputation for being the best on the economy has been trashed in recent months. At the end of the 2019 general election campaign, the Tories had a 17-point lead over Labour in terms of who would best manage the economy; as of August, they were two points behind.
There is little in the response to the mini-budget to suggest the Tories’ ability to inspire confidence on the economy has returned: according to YouGov, 54 per cent of Conservative voters have little or no confidence in Liz Truss to tackle that very issue, compared with just 39 per cent who do.
In the 1990s, Black Wednesday obliterated the Tory party’s reputation on the economy. Though the general economic climate improved, the Conservatives’ standing on the issue did not. It took them 15 years to regain a commanding lead on the issue. Based on the current state of public opinion, the government could be on a similar trajectory.