As the salience of the Economy as an issue facing the people of Britain fades, other, less Conservative-friendly issues are looking set to enter the fray of central public concerns that will define the next general election.
According to Cicero Elections’ comprehensive issues tracker, fed by YouGov data, the Economy as an issue facing the country has fallen by almost 20% in importance over the last year. This is crucial as it is the issue in which the Conservatives hold the most authoritative lead in public confidence, currently standing at +12% over Labour. Conversely, the issue in which Labour currently commands a 12% lead, Health, is on trend to overtake the Economy as the most important issue to voters by the end of the year.
If we take a look at the state of play over the last year, we see that in August 2013 the public rating of the Economy held a 20-35% lead over Health. Since this time, the Economy has fallen to within touching distance of Health, with an averaging of both national and personal responses showing the gap to be just 5-8% this month.
National Importance: “Which of the following do you think are the most important issues facing the country at this time?” (Up to three selected).
Personal Importance: “And which of the following do you think are the most important issues facing you and your family?” (Up to three selected).
So then, what are the political risks and opportunities going forward?
As the dominance of the Economy as an issue fades, some may question the effectiveness of Conservative political strategists attempting to convert this diminishing capital into the long-heralded political benefit to the party that was meant to materialise as the British economy recovered. Of course there is an important caveat to this; the sentiment tracked here is likely to reflect potential voter concerns rather than approval, so the Economy trending downwards suggests that an improving economic picture in the UK is simply starting to mean that worries are shifting elsewhere.
At first look, however, this seems to create a puzzle. Media headlines in recent months have presented a dual story. One the one hand we see consistently falling unemployment and an economy set to be the fastest growing in the G7. On the other, however, stubbornly flat levels of productivity and persistent below-inflation wage growth continue to create what must only look like an economic contradiction to the British public.
Our Cicenomics page attempts to find some paradigm in the key economic indicators which impact on voter sentiment.
Here, we find that the improving long-term trend of peoples’ support of how the Government is managing the economy has markedly stagnated for the last four months. This has seen public approval of economic policy shift from around -40% two years ago to hovering around at a neutral 0% since April, with no real improvement since. The collective emotive momentum here has changed. But why?
In this, it may be worth arguing that we can witness a direct reflection of people concluding that their personal finances aren’t yet improving in accordance to the recovering economy more generally. Further, although bound by the limits of conjecture, it might also be said that Labour have successfully divorced the idea of the Economy (an issue unlikely to be fully recovered from politically before 2015) with an issue directly linked to wage growth and how much money people take home – the cost of living.
Whilst there has been no stratospheric boost to Conservative support as economic news has improved in the last two years, it can nevertheless be asserted that it has underpinned the Conservatives’ ability to maintain a polling position just a few percentage points below their performance in 2010, despite strong political headwinds from Labour’s cost of living line of attack on one side and the rise of UKIP on the other.
Of course, timing is everything, and this maxim demonstrates how differently things could look for the Tories if Health emerged as a headline issue at a different time. At a comparable point two years ago, the Labour lead on Health was whopping 20%. Two years before that, the Conservatives led by 3%. We must also recognise the difficulty of party machines to convert sentiment into the political bottom line of national voting intention, as demonstrated with the Conservatives’ love-hate relationship with the Economy over the course of this electoral cycle.
This point is highlighted further when looking at the contentious issue of Immigration. The YouGov data shows that whilst Immigration is now the headline issue for voters in respect of perceived problems facing the country (currently rated as 6% more important than the Economy), this very same issue barely registers when the public are asked how Immigration affects them personally.
The ability for the main parties to successfully create political capital from the issue of Immigration is blurred further when looking at public trust indicators. Whilst the Conservatives enjoy a 9% lead over Labour in tackling Immigration, it is the only issue for which less than half of the British public think that any of the main parties – combined – are trustworthy. This contrasts with five other headline issues which we track, all of which consistently show more than half of all voters having faith in at least one of the main three parties.
The debate as to whether people tend to vote based on national or personal issues is likely to rage once more in light of this data, but the one trend which is uniform across both national and personal responses is the steep convergence of the Economy and Health.
So yes, as issues facing British voters, the Economy is trending down and Health is trending up. But this convergence doesn’t exist in isolation – and predicting how people will vote in May 2015 on the back of this data is much less clear than at first glance.
Data tables: Sourced from YouGov. Updated fortnightly.
Photo: Darren Harmon