David Cameron gave a speech last Friday on new proposals to ban welfare opportunities for migrants who haven’t resided in the UK for more than four years.
Within 24 hours, George Osborne’s plan to inject £2bn into the NHS in this Wednesday’s Autumn Statement was circulating in the press. These two huge announcements, seemingly tailored to please opposite ends of the political spectrum, hint at the Conservatives’ strategy for winning come May 2015. Today’s Cicero Elections analysis tells us exactly why.
The Changing Pattern of Public Trust
Let us begin at the start. Our Comprehensive Issues Tracker, which shows the importance of issues facing voters and which parties they think are performing best on each, confirms some obvious assumptions. Labour’s strongest issue is by far their policy position on the NHS (holding a lead of 11% over all other parties), with the Conservatives’ primary source of trust remaining the Economy (with an unparalleled 15% lead).
What has been more interesting in recent months, however, is the increased fragmentation of support in otherwise traditionally “safe” policy areas for the mainstream parties.
Immigration & Europe Battleground
The political splintering occurring within the first two issues below is quite striking. On both Immigration and Europe, support for Other parties is higher than support for both Labour and the Lib Dems’ policy positions combined. More worryingly for the political establishment in general is the reading that these are also the only two issues which show that more than half of voters believe that no mainstream party at all is capable of tackling them.
Note: No further breakdown of “Others”available. Produced fortnightly by YouGov.
But knowing which party is winning on what issue is only half of the story. This is why we measure the party-preferences of issues against the way in which voters perceive them to be important. Our tracker breaks this down into the importance of both issues facing the country and of issues facing ones household. The contrasts are stark.
Whilst Europe is rated as being the least important issue facing families, it has recently shot up to become one of the key issues of salience in respect of national concern. Meanwhile, whilst Immigration rates as the most important issue facing the country, it is only the fourth highest issue of importance in respect of voter’s own personal situation (with Education and Welfare not far behind). You can see the full interactive trackers here.
Why Welfare is UKIP’s Next Target
These insights offer a strong indicator as to which policy areas the electorate will weigh their votes against come the General Election in just over five months time. It also offers room for forecasting where the changing passions and values of the British electorate are heading, with one key reading of this data telling us where the crosshairs of UKIP’s next policy target will lie: Welfare.
Just five months ago, in July, the mainstream parties’ combined share of confidence in Welfare stood at 64%, with both the Conservatives and Labour tussling for a small lead over the other month-to-month. Today, this combined share is now 58%, with the perceived competence of Other parties filling the void with a rise from 8% to 14% during this short time. Any shift over 3% is considered to be outside the margin of error, so a 6% movement is the sign of something significant.
This is also above trend for the support of Other parties in comparison to the other core issues of the Economy, the NHS and Education, and should act as a clear warning signal to party strategists on both sides of the electoral spectrum.
What UKIP has managed to innovate in this electoral cycle is a proliferation of their message by proxy; that is by arguing that Immigration, and more recently, Welfare, are issues that are inextricably connected to the debate over Britain’s membership of the EU. This data today shows that UKIP’s method of arguing for an emotive connectivity between policy areas can work particularly well at shifting voter sentiment away from traditional patterns.
Is £2bn the Cost of Electoral Success?
We now see this is a method being employed by Mr Osborne’s recent messaging, and is something likely to be vocalised once more on Wednesday – this being the direct linkage of the sustainability of NHS spending to good governance of the economy.
Our analysis on the Cicenomics page has shown that poor wage growth has stagnated economic optimism for much of 2014, despite the UK being the fastest growing economy in the western world this year. What Mr Osborne’s move does, then, is to translate an prolonged and unconvincing economic recovery into something tangible of high emotion – the NHS.
The play here is whether or not Mr Osborne’s £2bn olive branch will resonate with the swing-voters in the centre ground who want nothing to do with UKIP. For the Conservatives to generate political capital on one flank of their party whilst ceding ground on their other would clearly be a fruitless exercise. And this is arguably why Mr Cameron tacked the party towards the right last Friday.
His speech on Welfare reform for migrants, timed just prior to a huge pre-announced Autumn Statement NHS giveaway, is designed to directly challenge the appeal of UKIP on the right, without alienating the centre-ground voters who invested in a reformed and moderate Conservative Party in 2010.
What can we expect post Autumn Statement?
Politicians know all too well how tough it is to win back trust on an issue once it’s lost, and the evidence from our YouGov trackers today suggest that the political splintering of the mainstream has already begun on the issue of Welfare. Mr Cameron’s and Mr Osborne’s activity in recent days shows an alertness to both this accentuated political fragmentation on the right and the public apathy of the economic recovery more generally.
We can only begin to judge in the coming weeks if the Conservative Party has pivoted its strategy sufficiently with enough time left on the clock. With the pre-election sweeteners to be announced this Wednesday, bare in mind that ground needs to be gained on both flanks of the party should Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne still be in their jobs on 8th May 2015.
The political dynamics we are currently witnessing are unprecedented in British democratic history, and the very if and how of whether the Conservative Party can realise such a feat will make for fascinating analysis. Watch this space.