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19 March 2014

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.

By Rafael Behr

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.

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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. 

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