Budget 2015: The quiet moments matter

by Jonathan Todd

Budgets are supposed to be big moments. The kind that determine general elections. But maybe they are decided by millions upon millions of quieter moments. When payslips are inspected, profits turned, and housing wealth accumulated.

In these quieter moments judgments are made on the economy’s performance. In turn, these bear upon general election votes. It is a eighteen months since Uncut spotted a gradual rise in the proportion of the electorate reporting the economy as doing well and a steady decline in Labour’s poll lead. We ran a regression to assess the relationship between these data series and postulated that the Tories would overtake Labour when a quarter of the electorate came to the view that the economy is doing well.

In May last year, when YouGov’s tracker on economic sentiment first started to bump up against a quarter of the electorate being of this belief, we noted that Tory poll leads had started to emerge. These leads were faltering and slow to confirm themselves. Like the upward trajectory in the proportion of the electorate positive about the economy.

24 per cent of the electorate thought the economy was doing well last May and Labour held an average of a 3 point poll lead, as the table below illustrates. Occasional Tory leads then existed but the average favoured Labour. The Tories weren’t consistently ahead but nor was economic sentiment resoundingly over a quarter. At 30 per cent, economic sentiment now comfortably clears the quarter threshold, and Labour’s poll lead is less impressive than last May.

If we simply compare the data in May 2014 and March 2015, they seem to confirm the original Uncut hypothesis: the more the economy improves, the narrower Labour’s lead. The pattern of these series between these two months, however, rewards inspection.

Between May 2014 and September 2014, economic sentiment slowly ticked upward. No dramatic moves but the direction of travel was clear. This series, though, fell to 22 per cent in December. This came on the back of a fall between September and October. The coldness of winter may have bitten into our economic judgments. During this period, the Tories were stalled a percentage point behind Labour.


Source: YouGov

As the weather has warmed up, economic judgments have brightened too, with February recording a 4 percentage point improvement in economic sentiment and March adding a further 2 per cent on to this. This has been reflected in March’s political polls. The Tories have moved from being a point behind, as they were throughout November and February, to being tied with Labour.

If the weather is driving economic sentiment, Labour has cause to worry. This seems unlikely, however. If economic sentiment could decline through September and December, it might do so again between March and May. The longer term trends, however, are clear: improving economic sentiment, declining Labour poll leads.

None of this changes quickly. It moves at a glacial pace. Nothing seems to spur the data into dramatic movements. Not ISIS or Putin. Not – we might assume – Budget 2015 or the short general election campaign to follow.

This suits the Conservatives. George Osborne decided in the Budget to stick and not twist. No big moves or rabbits. Just  – as Uncut predicted – tidying up a careless Autumn Statement to realign the fiscal projection away from the 1930s, undercutting a key Labour attack line.

Osborne decided to do so little in the big moment of the Budget because he is confident that the small moments of economic judgments will continue to increasingly favour him. The underlying trends in the table above support this judgment.

Osborne has made his choice. Have Labour? Ed Miliband played a greatest hits set at the Spring Rally: love for the NHS and apprenticeships and contempt for Tories and tax avoiders. The point of the rally was to motivate an activist base fired by Tory scorn.

But there is a sense that Miliband is now a tribute act to himself, repeatedly playing the greatest hits, and hoping they still work. They do in the pantomime atmosphere of the rally – booing Tories, cheering the NHS. Whether they are heard in the quiet moments of economic judgment is another thing.

Rick Rubin is a music producer to have reinvented many performers seemingly reduced to self-tribute status. Even at this late stage, if Miliband can find a Rubin to make him heard in the quiet moments, I would encourage him to.

Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut


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9 Responses to “Budget 2015: The quiet moments matter”

  1. Mike says:

    Fair points. The budget was not splashy and that was intentional as a key Conservative message is competence. They used the proceeds of the bank share sell off to pay back some of the debt. Again a sensible and competent move.

  2. Tafia says:

    The thing that was going to give Labour a big lead was always going to be the problems in the NHS this winter. That happened, but a lead failed to materialise – in short, the public were not that bothered seemingly, probably because unless it directly affected you personally, then it was just another story in the six o’clock news.

    Historically, the incumbent should start to increase in the polls. Again historically the tories are usually a tad understated because of ‘shy tories’, so the omens are more favourable to the tories.

    Personally, I would be surprised now if the tories don’t win and not only that may even snatch the tiniest of majorities.

    People as a rule vote for change but there just doesn’t seem to be that much different on offer to change to.

    What Labour really need to worry about longterm is if the Tories win, and UKIP stay above 10% – that means there are serious structural problems in Labour.

    Then there is the problem Labour has with all it’s seats in Scotland – every seat it loses up there to the SNP, they have to gain another in England – which is predominantly tory most of the time, just to stand still (not a problem that affects the tories, they’ve been virtually non-existant in Scotland for decades now).

    Other new factors are also starting to appear, such as Labour’s support amongst pensioners (who are the most likely to vote, showing marked decline – a result of the tory triple lock perhaps? Or because these are thew pensioners that years earlier bought their council houses?

  3. paul barker says:

    The pensioners Triple Lock was a Libdem idea, on the front of the Libdem manifesto, like the Tax Cuts for the low paid.
    This article & the one below seem obvious truth but do Labour centrists have any idea what to do after Labour get beaten ?

  4. Tafia says:

    The pensioners Triple Lock was a Libdem idea, on the front of the Libdem manifesto, like the Tax Cuts for the low paid.

    Matters not one jot whose idea it was to normal people – just which government put it in place. Virtually everyone calls it a tory government – not a tory-LibDem government ergo to the bulk of people, the tories brought it in.

  5. wg says:

    Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea diverting so much effort into demonising UKIP – not that I give a toss either way.

  6. Fred says:

    Have any of you guys figured out that you may be wrong in your prediction of the Tories forming the next government? It’s taken three months for the Tories to slowly draw level with Labour in the polls. As the article suggests “glacial” is a good way to describe Tory gains. The Tories need a lead of at least 3-4 percent to be the party with most seats? A party with those ambitions needs to show greater forward movement than this with only forty odd days to the GE. In some individual polls Labour are still showing two and three percent leads. As a centrist Labour party member I share much of criticism which this site makes of the present Labour leadership. But merely shouting “Labour is crap” and expecting the whole edifice to fall apart isn’t advancing centre left politics – and it could prove the case that despite your analysis the Labour Party still takes power in May.

  7. Andrew says:

    The Tories are stuck in the low thirties and have been for years. Yes, Labour’s lead has gone but that isn’t because voters have been attracted to the supposed economic competence of the Tories is it? They have gone to the greens and the SNP.

  8. BenM says:

    Economic sentiment has ticked up, er, 6 points in 12 months!

    Given the glacial pace of how this feeds into poll share, I’d say the Tories are out of time and heading for opposition.

  9. Fred says:

    Yes totally undermines the view constantly put forward by this site that the Tories would storm home ( Atul’s “predictions” in early January of a clear Tory win now seem completely absurd). The Labour Party may be behind in the polls on economic competence but this election may in future be remembered as the one in which a totally overconfident Tory chancellor completely underestimated the public’s distaste for a party that appears to want to decimate the state. Good news for social democrats – even with a useless leader, there is still a clear appetite for our politics. How much better could we have done with a more competent duo in charge of the Labour Party.

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