It’s taken me a few days to think about the data which John Rentoul reported on a few days ago in the Independent. Aside from the headline figure that the Labour lead is only of the order of a few % points, the poll results make interesting reading even for those people like me who are normally totally uninterested in such rough population statistics.
As a disabled citizen, I am always quite touchy about the rhetoric of being ‘tough’ in the benefits system. This is because it took me approximately two years for my own disability living allowance to be restored, and this was only after I appeared in person at a benefits tribunal here in London. And yet the lead which the Conservatives have on benefits is massive: “Be tough on people abusing the benefits system: Conservative lead 39 points”. Here, I think usefully Labour can distinguish between people who deserve disability benefits for their living and mobility, whom they should be proud to champion, and people who are clearly free-loading the system. To try to get to the bottom of this, I tried to ask a 64-year-old friend of mine from Dagenham whether this notion of ‘benefits abuse’ is a real one. She explained ‘too right’, citing even that the council estates in Barking and Dagenham appeared to be stuffed full of immigrants who had somehow leapfrogged the social housing waiting list. I cannot of course say whether she’s right, but this is her perception. She went on to say that there were blatantly people around where she lived, who were making use of schools and hospitals, “to which they were not entitled.” The truth and legal arguments surrounding this feeling are of course longstanding issues, but the margin of the Conservatives’ lead on this is not to be sniffed at.
The finding that, “Keep the economy growing: Conservative lead 14 points”, is not of course particularly surprising. This is also a fairly robust finding. I suspect most people are still unaware of the enormity of the challenge which the last Government find itself confronting, such that Gordon Brown describes having to consult a few Nobel prize winners in economics at the last minute about his plans for bank recapitalisation (in his memoirs “Beyond the Crash”). How the £860 billion contributed to our famous deficit has been played out ad nauseam on Twitter, but such a discussion does not appear to have dented in the minutest sense the mainstream media. When Conservatives are faced with the question what they would have ‘done differently’, most do not even offer any answer, though true libertarians argue that they probably would have done nothing learning from the ‘Iceland experience’. But certainly one of the greatest successes of the political landscape has been converge all issues to do with the economy on the question, “Who do you trust on the economy?” The facts do actually speak for themselves, even though somewhat unclear. We may dispute we have had a double or triple recession since May 2010, but there is absolutely no doubt that the economy under this Coalition since May 2010 has done extremely badly (when the economy was indeed recovering in May 2010). That the economy may be dethawing a bit when the latest GDP ONS are released on Friday may not be a bad thing for Labour either. If voters are ‘grateful’ for an economy in recovery, and ‘trust’ Labour sufficiently, they may ‘hand over the keys’ to the Ed Miliband.
But would you like to give the keys back to the people who “crashed the car”? We, on the left, know that Ed Miliband, Ed Balls and Gordon Brown, did not single-handledly (or indeed triple-handedly), “crash the car”. Only, at the beginning of this week, JP Morgan was handed an eye-watering fine by its regulator over securitised mortgages. Nonetheless, this IS the public perception, and there are no signs of it shifting yet, given the sheer volume and brilliance of the lies from professional Coalition MPs. When you turn to issues to do with economy, which face, “real people”, the poll results produce an altogether different narrative. Whilst the media and Westminster villages enjoy GDP figures and “the scale of the deficit”, most hardworking people in the UK don’t go to work thinking about the deficit. Car drivers may think about the cost of filling up a tank of petrol in their car, or worry about the monumental scale of their energy bills.
This is why in a sense it’s payback time which Labour intends to take full advantage of. The Conservatives are clearly hoping for ‘analysis through paralysis’, where voters will be bored to death over what is exactly causing such high bills, including ‘green taxes’. The fundamental problem is, arguably, reducing the competitive market from 14 to 6, in part, but the public appetite for blaming Labour for this appears to be surprisingly weak. The public appear to have gone somewhat into “I don’t care who caused it, but please do sort it out” mode. Therefore, the poll finding, “Keep gas and electricity prices down: Labour lead 20 points” is striking. The market is not anywhere near perfect competition. It is an ‘oligopoly’ as it has too few competitors, which means that they can arrange prices at a level suitable for themselves. This is called ‘collusive pricing’, and it’s notoriously hard to regulate. That’s why the ‘price switching’ approach is so banal. As soon as you switch from one energy provider, you can land with another energy provider who is teetering on the brink of putting up energy prices themselves. They can do that. The latest intervention by Sir John Major provides that Ed Miliband has identified the right problem but arrived at the wrong solution. The irony is that Major himself has probably himself arrived at the right problem, but many disagree with the idea that a ‘windfall tax’ will ultimately benefit the consumer because of the risk of taxes and levies being indirectly handed down to the end-user. Nonetheless, it will make for an interesting Prime Minister’s Questions at lunchtime today.
The poll finding, “Protect people’s jobs: Labour lead 16 points”, also represents another powerful opportunity. The finding that there is a ‘record number of people in employment’ has always had a hollow ring, but Channel 4’s “Dispatches” programme managed to explain lucidly how millions were being duped into jobs with poor employment rights by multinational companies seeking to maximise shareholder dividend. The use of ‘zero use contracts’ has also raised eyebrows, as well as the drastic watering down of rights for employees under the unfair dismissal legal framework of England and Wales. And yet these are fundamentally important issues to do with the economy. Political analysts who do not comprehend this idea, in perseverating over their question “Who do you trust with the economy?”, are likely to be underestimating the problem which Cameron and colleagues face on May 7th 2015.
Whatever the public’s eventual ‘verdict’ on who runs the economy or issues to do with the economy better, the Conservative-led government is clearly running out of time. In a week when they should be fist-pumping the air over the GDP figures, three years down the line, they are bogged down in a debate over ‘the cost of living crisis’. That is, because all of his ‘faults’ in leadership, Ed Miliband has managed to choose which narrative he wishes to discuss. Whatever the precise understanding of voters over complicated issues of economics, this Conservative-led government are proving themselves to be excellent at one particular thing. They appear confidently self-obsessed and ‘out-of-touch’ with ordinary voters. Recent announcements, also relating to the economy, such as the decision to build a new nuclear power plant and the privatisation of the Royal Mail, have merely been interpreted as Cameron and ‘chums’ looking after his corporate mates rather than having the interests of consumers at heart. Whereas the Independent poll did not examine the issues to do with the NHS, it is clear that Jeremy Hunt’s relentless smear campaign has not even produced the slightest dent in Labour’s substantial consistent lead. With an imminent A&E crisis over Winter, actions will speak louder than words anyway.
But for Labour things appear to be ‘on the right track’. Even the figures suggest Labour is more trusted on issues to do with the economy, even if the answer to ‘who do you trust more on the economy?’ does not appear to be at first blush in Labour’s favour. What is, though, interesting is that Labour appears, at last, to have some ‘green shoots’ in a political recovery after one of its worst defeats ever in 2010.