In uncertain times, politicians must show ordinary families that they are on their side.
Voters today face a bleak situation. Incomes are static, prices are rising, unemployment is high, public spending is tightening, and there are widespread fears about public services being cut. The “squeezed middle” is under pressure as never before. But what does this mean for our political parties?
In the 474 polls published since the general election, the Conservative vote has averaged just over 37 per cent: exactly what they received at the ballot box in May 2010.
For a party that wants an overall majority, this prompts the question of how to attract enough new voters to win outright. Yet it also prompts a different question: given the pressures on the middle classes, why does the Tory vote remain so stubbornly high? Shouldn’t the voters be looking elsewhere?
After extensive research and polling work, I believe I can offer three main explanations for why the political landscape remains as it does. The first is leadership.
The single thing that most unites Tory voters who say they would vote Conservative again tomorrow is that they give David Cameron high marks for his performance. At times of crisis and uncertainty, leadership is critical – and to a large extent, people think they are getting it. Such voters know that Britain has huge problems to resolve, but there is some reassurance in seeing a leader who has set his direction and is sticking to it.
Second, even many who are finding life tough think that the Tories have the best approach on the economy. Those who voted for the party in 2010 tend to see tackling the deficit as a priority, and largely accept the need to squeeze public spending. Indeed, leadership and the economy are bound closely together: the perception that the Tories are willing to take tough decisions for the long term is currently the party’s strongest suit.
As voters watch the eurozone crisis unfold, this takes on extra importance: though most people’s first reaction is to say that Britain should not have to contribute to the bail-outs, or to insist that we could never match Greece for profligacy, there is at least some comfort in seeing their government seek to live within its means.
The third reason for the Tories’ resilience in the polls is that, however much people are struggling, most do not believe Labour offers a realistic alternative.
Ed Miliband’s team say they recognise that the deficit is a problem, and claim they will not simply oppose every cut. Yet that is precisely what they have done. Voters notice that sort of thing. And Miliband himself doesn’t help: while people see Cameron as determined and competent, if somewhat ruthless, they regard his rival as well-intentioned but out of his depth, not to mention rather weird.
How can the Conservatives expand their vote share at a time of flat or declining living standards? Again, economic competence and leadership hold the key. My research has found that former Labour voters who now think the Tories have the best approach to the economy are 157 times as likely to say they will vote Conservative as those who don’t think that.
While winning the economic argument is essential to winning new voters, people are clearly not switching to the Tories in large numbers. A large part of the reason is that concerns about the economy go far wider than just the deficit, which seems to be the Conservatives’ priority, or even their exclusive mission.
A recent poll I conducted in marginal constituencies found that getting the economy growing and creating jobs is seen by some distance to be the most important issue facing Britain. Dealing with the deficit and the debt came further down the list – below the NHS, immigration and education.
The Government argues, rightly, that controlling the deficit is a prerequisite for a sustainable recovery. But many feel that it is pursuing deficit reduction at the expense of job creation, rather than as a means to it. The Tories are thought to have the best approach on debt – but the voters they need to win over are less certain there are policies for growth.
The second aspect is leadership – and that means setting out a vision for improving life that goes beyond cutting the deficit. Voters need to see the Government keeping its promises on things like immigration, and to be persuaded that reforms in areas like the NHS and policing are designed to get better results for ordinary people, not just to save money.
At a time when the middle classes are under significant pressure, politicians must convince them they are on their side. The Tories in particular need to show that they are the party of the many, not the few, that they are on the side of the hard-pressed, not just the rich – a case which will be harder to make if scrapping the 50p tax rate seems to be top of the agenda. They must show that they understand people’s everyday priorities – an aim not helped by engaging in long rows about Europe.
If anything, the importance of leadership will grow as the next election nears. David Cameron is the only party leader who attracts people rather than putting them off. To capitalise on that advantage, he needs to show that once the deficit is out of the way, he has a plan for what comes next.