Forget about the Greens, it’s still the economy which should worry Labour most

by Stephen Tall on January 21, 2015

Over at this morning’s edition of The Times’s Red Box email, Philip Webster says, “I’m still looking for the “killer question” that tells us who the nation wants to form the next government”. I think the one reported today is pretty close to being it — and it should worry Labour:

yougov labour econ

Overall, voters are pretty pessimistic they’ll be better off under either party. However, the net figure (‘better off’ minus ‘worse off’) for the Tories, -22%, is less unhealthy than Labour’s -29%.

The sense that Labour has failed to make up its own deficit — polls consistently show Miliband and Balls trail Cameron and Osborne on economic competence — was re-inforced by today’s Prime Minister’s Questions. As the New Statesman’s Labour-sympathising George Eaton noted in his PMQs review, ‘An easy win for Cameron leaves Labour with reasons to be gloomy’:

[Ed Miliband] then turned to the economy, deploying Labour’s stat of choice: that for the first time since the 1920s, living standards will be lower at the end of the parliament than they were at the start. But while this remains a potent charge, Cameron is now at least able to say that things are moving in the right direction. Inflation of just 0.5 per cent means that real wages rose by 1.3 per cent in the year to November. To most voters, it won’t feel as if the “cost-of-living crisis” is over (as Cameron wrongly claimed) but the improved figures will make these encounters far easier for the PM.

Most of the polling attention at the moment is focused on the current Green insurgency — the latest Guardian/ICM poll has them at a 20-year high of 11% — which is nibbling away at Labour’s overall rating.

Chances are, this Greenmania won’t last the closer we draw to May’s actual decision day. Labour’s real problem has been their inability to win back voter trust on the economy. This, to be fair to Ed Miliband, was always going to be a tough ask given the worst recession in living memory happened on Labour’s watch.

But Miliband does have to take responsibility for his failure to heed the warnings of friendly critics like In the Black Labour (and, yes, even not-so-friendly critics like Dan Hodges) that the party had to show voters it could govern effectively at a time when government borrowing has to be cut. And he does have to take responsibility for gifting the Tories that memory-fail in his last pre-election conference speech, forgetting to mention the deficit at all.

It’s the economy, stupid, always the economy. Which is why I’ve predicted the Tories will win more votes and seats than Labour.