George Osborne has delivered his latest Autumn Statement, announcing there has been no recession during this parliament and forecasting that the British economy will grow by 3% this year.
This final Autumn statement before the election is an important moment for the coalition government. But if the chancellor of the exchequer hopes to win voters over with big statements about the health of the national economy, he may be disappointed.
Research suggests that while British voters used to make the link between recent national economic performance and their vote, that link might be weakening.
All the indicators suggest that the economy is on the mend, with employment up and a double-dip recession avoided, but Osborne may struggle to sell that message to voters if they are not experiencing recovery on a personal level. And the data shows that many are not – or at least, that they think they are not.
Assessing what has already happened to the national economy has a greater influence on whether we vote for or against the incumbent government than our assessment of our personal economic finances. This was particularly true for the last Labour government.
That said, the role played by these retrospective evaluations about national economic performance may be weakening in the UK. It is harder for a voter to attribute blame for a weak economic performance or reward success if a single party doesn’t hold a majority.
The clarity of responsibility becomes muddled in these cases. So the ushering in of coalition politics in 2010 may have weakened the links between how voters perceive Britain’s economic performance and which party they support.
Another phenomenon has also emerged as the economy has improved – the unbalanced nature of the recovery. A BBC analysis estimates that the poorest in the UK have falling incomes in real terms while those at the top are noticing slight gains in income and larger gains in wealth. Median income earners are still behind where they were at the onset of the economic downturn in 2008.
A look at the data on citizens’ perceptions of their own and national future economic performance suggests a large gap between where people believe the national economy is headed and how their own circumstances will fare.
How do you think the general economic situation of this country will develop over the next 12 months? Will it:
How do you think the financial situation of your household will develop over the next 12 months? Will it:
The gap between those who say the national economy will get a little or a lot better and those who say the same about their own finances is wide, slightly wider than when the Conservatives were kicked out of power in the 1990s.
In 1997, 52% of respondents predicted the national economy would get a little or a lot better while only 34% thought their own finances would head in the same direction. This gap ushered in a Labour Government.
In 2014 the gap was slightly wider, and people were not as optimistic about the future of their own and national economic finances. A total of 43% of the British public believed the national economy would get a lot or a little better and 22% believed their own financial situation would go the same way.
Comparing prospective national and personal evaluations dating back to Labour’s triumph in 1997 highlights two important points. Voters became more optimistic about the future of the national economy between 2010 and 2014, but responses to the personal prospective question indicate that the portion of the electorate who believe their own finances will get better remains low.
Although the proportion of respondents believing their own financial situation will get a lot better rose between 2010 and 2014, it remains at just 3%. And more think their own finances will get worse than believe national economic performance is set for a downturn in the near future.
As they learned in the 1990s, a victory on the basis of an improving national economy is not a given for the Conservatives. Osborne must do more to shore up the votes of those who believe they will not see the benefits of improving national economic conditions. He also needs to make clear that the gains people are seeing are the result of Conservative dominance of the coalition.
It has traditionally been argued that views on prospective national performance should not be given too much weight. People who support an incumbent government will act as “cheerleaders”, rating the national economy and even their own finances as good in support of their parties. Those who oppose the incumbent will, on the other hand, talk national economic performance down so as not to give the incumbents credit.
Without a doubt some of this occurs among survey respondents but the size of the gap coupled with the unevenness of the economic recovery also suggests that a segment of the electorate does not see a “rising economic tide lifting their boats.”
Osborne and David Cameron might have to address this gap in the upcoming campaign. They may need to convince those who think that defecting to UKIP or returning to Labour will improve their personal fortunes, measured in the amount of income they take home.
This is especially challenging this year as there is little room for significant tax cuts and wages in many sectors are failing to keep pace with inflation.
As US president, Barack Obama, learned in the 2014 midterm elections, changing times mean that strong economic recovery is no guarantee that voters will back you when the election comes around.
Thomas Scotto receives funding from the ESRC.