Monday, 27 April 2015

The Economy Stupid, just like 1992?

David Seawright from the University of Leeds discusses the election and the economy. 

Of course every General Election campaign in Britain can be analysed as a unique event but viewed more as a genus, some more than others reflect the essence of past contests and arguably the 2015 campaign uncannily resembles that of 1992. In a very tight contest both the major parties were neck-and-neck in opinion polls for most of the campaign, both at 40 per cent in 1992[1] and now at 34 per cent in 2015. Moreover, for both campaigns, the economy, leadership and the National Health Service (NHS) would feature prominently as salient issues and ones on which, in a valence framework, the election would be won or lost. 

Just as in 1992, the Conservatives want to emphasise the lack of trust of Labour on the economy, with a repetitive and consistent theme of ‘competence not chaos’ to reflect their advantage on this topic and to stress the danger of allowing for any future control of it by Labour. In a Guardian/ICM opinion poll the Conservatives appear to be winning the argument by some considerable distance, with David Cameron and George Osborne seen as the more “trusted team to run the economy properly” for 44% of voters, compared to just 17% who would rather trust Ed Miliband and the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls[2].

This gap is also reflected in the concomitant valence issue of leadership where Cameron is usually around 20 percentage points ahead of Miliband on who would make the best Prime Minister. In 1992, the electorate clearly had difficulty in envisaging Neil Kinnock as a leader suitable to be Prime Minister; notwithstanding the considerable effort by his ‘spin team’ to address such weakness and for what we now see as the over-praise for him and the party’s campaign at the time.

Again, like 1992 where a Shadow Budget was revealed to underpin a claim for economic frugality, Ed Miliband addresses this perceived ‘economic weakness’ by putting ‘fiscal responsibility’ at the heart of the party’s election manifesto for 2015 but as we shall see it may not be the wisest strategy to direct attention to positions of perceived weakness and that is undoubtedly why the Labour party quickly returned to the issue of the NHS.

A major theme of the Labour party is to ‘save the NHS’, again just as in 1992 when the NHS was one of the most salient issues. The April 2015 Guardian/ICM poll reported that the NHS was the issue that concerned voters most when considering their vote, with the issue being twice as important to voters as anything else; unsurprisingly it is one of Miliband’s favourite campaign themes.

In 1992 the Liberal Democrats were perceived as ‘fairly shattered’ emerging from the squabbles of the Alliance and then from those of the Social and Liberal Democrats, falling to around 9% in the opinion polls but regaining support to win 18% in the actual contest, however the polls at this juncture would seem to rule out any similar gain for the Lib Dems in May.

Ironically in 1992, John Major would speak of the danger of devolution for the unity of the United Kingdom, with some opinion formers expressing scepticism that it was a vote loser in Scotland with very little interest elsewhere, although others saw the clarity and conviction on this constitutional issue as effective in winning or holding votes in both England and Scotland[3]. In 2015, John Major is wheeled out to give a key note speech again on the danger of constitutional mayhem if a much improved presence by the Scottish National Party (SNP) at Westminster buttresses the Labour party in government.

There are many other similarities with 1992, not least of which is the business endorsement of the Conservative party by letter to national newspapers but will the Conservative party similarly prosper in 2015 as it did in 1992 due to the issue of ‘trust on the economy’?

Of course, Britain is more of a multi-party system now and both major parties are well short of the 40 per cent level they had in the polls in 1992. Interestingly, Lynn Vavreck’s work[4] for Presidential campaigns in America pays special attention to the messages candidates send and the constraints they face, with the economy being the most important constraint. She demonstrates that the economy became the most salient message for U.S. campaigns from around 1972 onwards, where the winner is usually the ‘clarifying candidate’ who underpins their advantage by ‘clarifying’ their message on an already privileged economic position. Conversely, the candidate who is not perceived as self-evidently helped by their position on the economy should run what she terms an ‘insurgent campaign’, which aims to re-set the agenda away from that of the economy and onto an issue where the candidate is more popular than their opponent.

This is a rather simplistic overview but there is an argument for undertaking a similar in depth analysis of the message for British elections, to see if the clarifying candidate does indeed more often than not win by utilising the message on the ‘economy’. Green and Hobolt showed the economy certainly mattered for New Labour up to 2005[5], but our comparison with 1992 demonstrates that we need to undertake such an analysis for British elections but maybe the insurgent term should be replaced by that of ‘favourable’ (as to re-setting the agenda) with insurgent kept for those messages from such parties as the SNP and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) who both offer types of anti-establishment, ‘insurgent’ messages. Of course, a win in the context of 2015 may well be one of obtaining the most seats rather than a majority of seats as in 1992.

David Seawright is a Senior Lecturer of British Politics at the University of Leeds.
 

[1] For the campaign of 1992, see Butler, D. and Kavanagh, D. (1992) The British General Election of 1992, Basingstoke: St Martin’s Press.
[2] Guardian/ICM opinion poll, 13 April 2015, at: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/apr/13/conservatives-six-point-lead-guardian-icm-poll-labour.
[3] Butler and Kavanagh, op cit.
[4] Vavreck, L. (2009) The Message Matters: The Economy and Presidential Campaigns, Princeton University Press.
[5] Green, J. and Hobolt, S. B. (2008) Owning the issue agenda: Party strategies and vote choices in British elections, Electoral Studies, Vol. 27, pp. 460-476.

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