The accepted wisdom is that if the economy recovers, the Tories will win the next election. Voters will reward their bravery in making cuts and will thank them with their votes at the election. The only opportunity for Labour if the economy does improve will be if the improvement is a jobless one, with people then blaming the Tories for cutting badly and not improving the economy in the right way. While we can take nothing for granted, I think we should be cautious about looking to either of these outcomes.
Firstly and most obviously, Labour people should not hope for or even be seen to hope for high unemployment. We can warn that we think it is highly likely from the path being currently pursued, but the people we represent will not be clothed and fed by our saying “I told you so”.
Secondly, and counter-intuitively, it won’t necessarily be the Government who benefit politically from economic recovery. Excellent pollster and thinker Deborah Mattinson speaks often about the fact that voters rarely reward governments for past performance, but vote for them on the basis of the forward offer. When I asked her whether – given this – it mattered whether the coalition did bring about economic recovery, she said that it might not, but would matter if Labour didn’t recover its reputation for economic competence. All about the forward offer.
This reminded me of a conversation I had with my uncle shortly after the 1997 election. My uncle isn’t especially political. He’s intelligent and I think he mostly votes Labour, but beyond that thinks me and the political activists in my family are all a bit odd. I remember him saying that the feeling he got in 1997, was that people who sort of believed in redistribution, only really feel comfortable voting for it when times are good. He said his friends felt more comfortable in 1997 and so better able to vote Labour.
The policy outcomes of this thinking are unclear, beyond the immediately obvious that Labour needs to recover a sense of competence on the economy autonomously – not just comparatively to George Osborne and Danny Alexander. But maybe it gives us a way of thinking through a positive narrative of the Labour forward offer, and an understanding that if we stagger our way back through the economic cycle, all is not lost electorally. I’m not claiming we should be optimists - either for Labour or the UK recovery. But maybe the realists among us should persuade the pessimists we need a plan B?