‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ Ever since the famous catch phrase from the Clinton campaigns, it has been accepted that the economy sits at the very centre of voter concerns and determines the outcome of elections.
The Coalition certainly accepts this view. What else would explain the constantly repeated mantra of the ‘long term economic plan is working’; aligned with the constant refrain that ‘Labour cannot be trusted with the economy’?
The UK economy has recovered strongly over the last couple of years, with robust quarterly GDP growth figures, matched by sustained low inflation and substantial quarterly falls in unemployment – including today’s ONS figures showing the first drop of unemployment below 2m in nearly six years. From the Coalition’s point of view, this provides the ideal backdrop to the May 2015 election.
The Conservatives run comfortably ahead of Labour in polling on economic management. The party is relying on this voter perception coming through strongly as the election approaches, helping to counteract the negative views they hold on their squeezed personal finances. It’s a strategy that says, ‘it’s the economy that will win it for us in the end.’
But what if the recovery falters?
There is growing evidence from the data that the recovery could already be fizzling out:
• Retail sales in September were 0.8% down from the previous year – the biggest drop since 2008;
• House price inflation has slowed sharply in recent months and prices were reported as stagnant overall last month;
• Manufacturers reported last month the steepest fall in growth expectations in 18 months;
• Exports by volume grew for 10 months out if 12 through 2013/14, but have thus far dropped every month in the current financial year; and the export order book survey for September – at -24 – was the lowest for over two years;
• Both the European Commission’s Economic Sentiment Indicator for the UK and the CBI’s Industrial Trends survey have dipped in the last two months;
• NOP’s consumer confidence survey, having only just reached overall positive territory earlier this year for the first time since 2005, has dipped in two of the last three months.
What if this marks the exhaustion point for the UK’s hitherto impressive economic recovery? So far, there are just straws in the breeze. But everything will become far more serious if Q3 GDP figures come in well under current estimates, and if there is another weak figure for Q4, the last before the election.
What impact will that have on voting in May 2015?
There will be a significant problem for the Coalition’s ‘the long term economic plan is working’ script. Because it won’t be.
Voters, already pressured by real wage reduction, will also be more worried about job security. A heavy drop off in consumer confidence usually damages any incumbent government.
The figures on deficit reduction will begin to look sickly too. Already in the current financial year, the monthly deficits are running ahead of 2013/14. The deficit accumulated so far is £45.4bn, against £42.7bn for the equivalent months in the previous financial year. The comparison will only get worse if the slowdown takes hold, thanks to both lower tax receipts and increasing welfare payments.
Labour will see a Christmas present like no other – the Coalition’s central re-election bid dissolving before its eyes.
Or is it as straight forward as that? Most probably, not.
As the economy improves, voters worry less about it. Concern about ‘the economy’ (as opposed to ‘my household finances’) has slipped back down the list as the recovery has gathered pace. ICM’s latest survey shows ‘the economy’ sitting in third place on the list of voter concerns – with a ‘top concern’ score of 17%, as opposed to 20% for immigration and 24% for the NHS.
At face value, that makes the Conservative’s ‘economic management’ trump card worth less, leaving the way open to battle on immigration – where the central pledge on reducing the net numbers is undeliverable – and on the NHS – where there is some historic mistrust.
An economic slowdown is double edged for the Coalition parties, particularly for the Conservatives. The current mantra on the ‘working plan’ will be gravely tarnished and will have to be dropped, leaving some easy hits for Labour. But, worries about the economy will, in all likelihood, rise up the voter concern list – with the result that the issue of rising concern, and where the Conservatives currently enjoy electoral strength, replaces issues where they currently display electoral weakness.
The Conservatives’ election game plan will be centred on playing up the heightened risk of ‘handing it back to Labour’ – hoping that will trump electoral worries about ‘the plan’ apparently not working.
Labour’s election game plan will be based on playing up ‘the failure of the Coalition’s plan’ – hoping it will trump electoral worries about Labour’s economic competence.
That’s an argument that could play itself to a standstill, in which case UKIP would undoubtedly try to turn it to their advantage. Only they too might find securing traction harder as their top issues slide down the pecking order, to be replaced by ‘it’s the economy, stupid.’