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It may not be just the economy, stupid!

It may not be just the economy, stupid!

🕔06.Sep 2013

In response to Birmingham’s stubbornly high unemployment, Chris Game picks apart the polls to see how important unemployment will be ahead of the next general election. 

Some of the figures in Paul Dale’s recent report on Birmingham’s current unemployment were both shocking and depressing: highest unemployment rate of any major UK city, over 17% of the working age population without a job, and in some wards over a quarter.

One of the most depressing things, though, was these figures’ broad familiarity – which is perhaps why I was struck at least as much by Paul’s introductory observations. Notwithstanding these dire statistics, he suggested, “it seems unlikely that unemployment will be a topic that dominates the 2015 General Election in the way that contests in the 1970s and 1980s were gripped by vicious debate about ever-lengthening dole queues.  “Although some 2.5 million people in the UK are without work, the jobs issue appears to have been displaced in the public psyche by more pressing concerns over immigration, the future of welfare benefits, law and order and our place in Europe.”

Paul didn’t quote any actual opinion poll findings to support his impressions, but he easily could have done – because August saw a particularly noteworthy set of results in one of the pollsters’ ‘tracking polls’, in which they ask a few set questions in the same form every single month, and thereby track how our most basic political views – on the parties, their leaders, and, in this case, “the most important issues facing Britain today” – change over time.

The pollsters Ipsos MORI have been asking their “most important issues” question for nearly 40 years now, and, although – don’t go away! – I’m not planning to cover even each General Election, it is interesting to look at the occasional one – like May 1979 when Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives came to power.

Inflation/prices was the issue picked by most poll respondents (68%), followed predictably enough by trade unions/strikes (56) and unemployment (53). Crime/law and order were next (41), but all other domestic issues – education, the NHS, housing, even race relations/immigration – lagged behind Northern Ireland (18). It was difficult to argue that Mrs T’s priorities weren’t shared by the electorate as a whole.

But these things can change swiftly. By the time of the post-Falklands election in June 1983, our overwhelmingly greatest concern was unemployment (85%) and those ever lengthening dole queues that Paul Dale recalled. The Greenham Common women peace protesters had launched nuclear weapons/disarmament/defence (45) into second place, leaving everything else pretty well nowhere. Crime had fallen to 9%, trade unions to 5%, and Northern Ireland to 1%.

In more recent years defence has become linked in the public mind more with international terrorism, making it, like foreign affairs generally, an issue of usually comparatively low salience, but pushed to sudden extreme peaks by events like 9/11 and the London bombs. The consistently ‘Big 5’ issues since the election of the first Blair Government in 1997 are normally taken to be the economy, unemployment, race relations/immigration, the NHS, and crime/law and order.

Each of these five has at some point been named by most poll respondents as the single most important issue facing Britain. For the first seven years, almost without interruption, it was the NHS, picked by usually at least 40% and at times, particularly when Blair himself drew attention to the results of long-term underfunding, by up to 70%. The one interlude came as it was briefly topped by concern about unemployment during the winter of 1998/99.

By 2008/09, though – partly no doubt because of the Government’s greatly increased funding – the NHS had been overtaken as most important issue by all the other four of the Big 5.

Race relations/immigration was our chief concern for a time in 2006, following media reports of the large-scale settlement of EU migrants, and foreign prisoners being released without being considered for deportation. The following August crime/law and order hit the top, with the murders of father-of-three Garry Newlove and 11-year old Rhys Jones.

But it was, of course, the banking crisis and ensuing recession that changed the world, and changed dramatically the importance of the economy as a political issue. In July 2007 it was meandering quietly along, with just 7% of us seeing it as a most important issue, putting it in joint ninth place alongside drug abuse.

By the end of 2008 that 7% had become 70%. It had long since become, for the first time in MORI’s records, Britain’s most important single issue, and that’s where it remains today – but now by what seems like a swiftly narrowing, and possibly disappearing, margin.

Ipsos MORI’s August tracking poll produced several noteworthy findings. First, the economy. Though still ranked most important issue by the highest number of respondents (43%), it was 8% down on July’s poll, and at its lowest level for five years.

Coming immediately after George Osborne’s claims that the economy is “on the mend”, and with separate figures showing our economic optimism at a more than three-year high, this finding would seem to support Paul Dale’s suggestion that economic worries are being “displaced in the public psyche” by other concerns – like race relations, for one.

While the economy’s voter-importance has been declining, that of race relations/immigration has been steadily rising – by 19% since last November, and 4% in the past month. At 38%, it’s at its highest since the Coalition took office, with top rankings coming from the over-55s (49%), and those in the north of England (47%) and the Midlands (45%). Indeed, for these groups race/immigration is more important than the economy.

Other issues currently increasing in importance or concern to potential voters’ are the NHS – up 3% to 29% and its highest figure since January 2008; and housing – up 7% to 14% and its highest rating since the house price peaks of 2007/08, and coinciding with news of a new affordability gap opening up as prices again rise much faster than average salaries.

There are, however, a couple of issues on Paul’s ‘displacement list’ where either his political antennae are temporarily failing him, or possibly he senses what voters are thinking before they know it themselves. Crime/law and order, apart from a short blip following the 2011 August riots, has been gradually but fairly consistently falling in voters’ order of importance, and at 16% is now some way adrift of the rest of the Big 5.

Then there’s ‘our place in Europe’, which, even throwing everything in – EU, Single European Currency, even Common Market – fails to stir more than about 7% of us. It’s conceivable that UKIP, next summer’s Euro-elections, and the prospect of an in-out referendum may change that, but I still find it hard to see it as a major General Election issue.

The last of Paul’s list is ‘the future of welfare benefits’. Ipsos MORI don’t have a precisely matching response option, so I’ve bundled up several that seem to catch elements of it: pensions/social security, social care for the elderly, poverty/inequality, and low pay/fair wages. The proportion of voters seeing these issues, taken together, as among the most important facing Britain has risen from 29% a year ago, to 36% in July, and 44% in August – which, although the comparison is completely duplicitous, just happens to be 1% higher than the importance of the economy.

And so we return to the beginning and to the electoral importance of unemployment. In normal, and particularly good, economic times voters treat ‘the economy’ and ‘unemployment’ as almost identical issues. In bad times, as over the past few years, the two are differentiated: almost everyone is concerned about the economy, not so many quite as concerned about unemployment.

Today, as at least some of us sense or are persuaded that our economic fortunes are improving, the two issues are again converging: the economy at its lowest level of voter importance for five years, but concern about unemployment rising to levels only occasionally touched since the late 1990s.

It’s been assumed ever since the Coalition was formed that its 2015 electoral test would come down, even more than usual, to Bill Clinton’s famous 1992 campaign message: “It’s the economy, stupid”. Convince voters you’ve got it right, or less wrong than your opponents would have got it, and you win. My guess is that’s still the case. But perhaps only if you define ‘the economy’ more broadly than the Ipsos MORI response category, and take several other economic-related issues into account as well.

Cover Image: Julian De Bono


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