Both the Conservatives and Labour have traditionally held an advantage over their main rivals in certain policy spaces. The Conservatives tend to be seen as the most reliable managers of the economy, whilst being tougher on crime and immigration. Labour meanwhile is the more trusted on the NHS and education.
But during election campaigns, parties need a certain edge. They need plausible policies and stances that the public not only supports, but relates to. Ideas that resonate, stick in the mind, and sway those crucial undecideds. And they need simple, coherent messages to communicate those ideas to the electorate.
A couple of years back, Labour had several. They decried the pace of the economic recovery, and warned of the risk of a ‘triple dip’ recession. The Tories weren’t delivering on their promises, and were damaging the economy through dangerous, ideologically-driven austerity, they argued. As it transpired, the UK didn’t experience a ‘double dip’, let alone a ‘triple dip’, and the recovery – whilst fragile – is far surpassing that of most other developed countries. So it is little surprise that Ed Balls hasn’t performed his ‘flatlining’ gesture at PMQs for some time.
Then Labour launched the ‘cost of living crisis’ narrative that achieved considerable cut-through: not just with the public, but also in the media. However, as inflation fell and the recovery took hold, the narrative has quietly fallen by the wayside.
So Labour’s recent focus has turned to the NHS. There is strong logic behind this: in a recent Ashcroft poll, 47% of the UK public said Labour had the best approach to the NHS, with just 29% naming the Conservatives (analysis from Cicero Elections shows that the NHS has surged – massively – as one of the key issues that voters care about.)
However the recent British Social Attitudes survey showed that public satisfaction with the NHS has actually risen over the past year. Labour undoubtedly retains a clear edge, but it is enough to land a killer blow on the Conservatives? The evidence – at least thus far – suggests that it may not be.
Ed Miliband could at least take solace from the fact that his energy policy – to freeze prices until 2017 – was, to all intents and purposes, hugely popular. Some within the sector pleaded that it was unworkable or short-sighted, but this did little to dent the popularity of the policy. Labour had energy companies on the back foot, and the public loved it.
Then over the space of just a few winter months, the policy unravelled. Oil prices plummeted, and wholesale prices followed suit. A price freeze suddenly lost its appeal – the public wanted a price cut.
To make matters worse, energy companies sought to adjust consumer prices but didn’t pass on the full extent of the falling wholesale cost. There are multiple reasons for this – energy suppliers purchase power in advance; and the final cost to consumers includes tax, levies and various other charges. Yet there is another reason that many suspect is the key determinant: energy suppliers fear a price freeze come May, so are refusing to significantly cut prices at any point ahead of the election.
So just like the triple dip, the flatlining economy and the cost of living crisis, we don’t hear Labour talking about energy prices nearly as much as they used to. Energy policy was one of Ed Miliband’s trump cards, but did he perhaps play it too early, and lose? With just two and a half months until polling day, the time in which to find another is fast disappearing.
Image courtesy of taxrebate.org