With polling showing Labour tied with the Tories on the issue of the economy, Matthew Oulton assesses the importance of the public trusting Labour with the economy for the next general election.
In 1997 when New Labour swept to power in a wave of enthusiasm, cutting the Tories to 165 seats and gaining a 179-seat majority, it barely drew level in polling on the Economy. Despite the familiar picture of years of Tory economic woes, the public were undecided on whether Blair or Major’s parties would handle the economy best.
Voters hardly ever trust Labour on the economy. Like defence and immigration, the economy is one of those issues that most Brits, and indeed many Labour voters, just don’t think Labour are as good at as the Tories.
Leaving aside the merits of this debate, what it means is that any Labour Opposition has as a strategic imperative to neutralise the issue of the economy. If the public trust us with their money at the beginning of the long election campaign, whenever it comes, we will be free to frame the election on the issues that suit us. We can talk about public services, the NHS, and education.
If the Tories are ahead on the economy, they frame the debate around that. Like Cameron and Osborne before them, Sunak and Johnson will suddenly try to scare the public about our trustworthiness with their hard-earned taxes. Since economic issues are so important to voters at the ballot box, it may well work.
A poll released on Thursday, therefore, showing Labour neck-and-neck with the Tories on the question of economic management, is a huge step in the road to a Labour Government. This chink in the Tory armour, if maintained, is the most important step forward in Keir Starmer’s leadership so far. The poll shows the public have much more confidence in Labour’s ability to keep prices down, improve standards of living, and help people onto the housing ladder, as well as more conventional Labour advantages on employment and poverty. Indeed, the only issue on which the Tories have a substantial lead is the deficit.
Now admittedly, the Tories’ economic management is in absolute tatters at the moment. It’s hard to believe that anyone could look at our inflation-strained, growth-bereft, and stagnant economy and conclude that the current Chancellor and his party are good custodians. The Tories have managed the economy like Phillip Green manages the high street.
And yet, their economic management has been bad for a long time. Growth has been anaemic almost since the day George Osborne first entered Number 11. Employment has been high in quantity but low in quality, productivity growth has been at a snail’s pace, and wages haven’t grown since we last had a Labour Government. The Tories have been handling our economy poorly for as long as I have known what an economy is, and the public have still trusted them more than us.
Some of this, then marks good fortune by the Labour Party. The cost of living crisis has shattered any pretence that the Conservatives can protect ‘the pound in your pocket.’
Most of it, however, shows a real change in the party. Gone are the economic figures of John McDonnell and Rebecca Long-Bailey, and in their place is the dependable and trustworthy Rachel Reeves. After all, when Johnson threatened a no-deal exit from the European Union – the economic equivalent to driving your car off a bridge – voters still trusted him more than Corbyn. Now, we have a front bench team that people can trust, and messaging that gets to the heart of what people care about. Most British people worry about public services, employment, and education, not whether broadband is in public ownership. The Tories may have committed unforced errors of their own accord, but we are finally in a position to capitalise on them.
Going forward, Labour must press home this advantage. The Conservatives cannot be trusted to continue with their hapless political and economic manoeuvring indefinitely. At some point, they are likely to get a grip, and return to their age-hold messages on the deficit and taxation. We must prevent them from pulling ahead on the economy. Labour must now set out a strategic framework that describes to the country our broad-strokes approach to economy. We need to explain how shared prosperity can be delivered through more investment in education and infrastructure, and how economic growth outside of London can benefit everyone – even Londoners. Our plans must be ambitious, inspiring, and must promise real change, but they must also be costed and sensible. We must demonstrate that we speak the language of priorities and understand that taxation is not free money.
Labour has an opportunity now, for the first time, to cut the legs out from the strategy that has served the Tories so well for so long. We can at last remove their mantel as the party of ‘sound finance’ and put forward a positive economic vision for the nation. Labour has the opportunity now to regain the public’s trust, and we must not squander it. A windfall tax may well be a good start, but it not going to see the Tories into Opposition on its own.
Matt is the Vice-Chair of the Economy and Finance Network. He is a final-year Economics student, hoping to work in political or economic advice. He’s from Merseyside, Labour’s true heartland, and writes frequently on a range of economic and political issues.
His interests in Economics focus on microeconomic theory and Public Policy, and his politics are characterised by a near-pathological obsession with returning Labour to government. He tweets at @matthewoulton.