This article was first published on the Public Finance magazine blog.
Over the next few weeks Ministers, MPs, councillors, party members and delegates will spend hours and hours in plenary debates, at fringe meetings and in front of TV cameras at their Party Conferences. As usual, discourse will cover a wide range of issues, everything from drugs policy reform to animal rights. One issue however, will continue to dominate - the economy – and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, in particular, will have his work cut out at Conservative Party conference to convince his party and the public that he is a man with a convincing plan.
It is not surprising that the economy will be the dominant subject, but closer inspection shows growing public interest in the specific issues of unemployment and jobs, meaning potential political dividend.
Ipsos MORI tracks changes in the number of Britons citing various issues as the most important facing the country. The combined responses from two questions – the most important issue plus any others – form what we call the Issues Index. Monthly polling allows us to pick up short-term worries and more permanent shifts in mood. The economy has been ‘first, and the rest nowhere’ continually since 2008 and last month was mentioned by 61% of Britons.
Since the election, however, the salience of unemployment has been growing as an issue in its own right, up from 21% in February 2010 to 35% August 2012. One might argue that unemployment is simply a different aspect of the same ‘economy’ issue but, nonetheless, it is a different aspect, just like inflation and prices, and taxation (we also capture mentions of these issues and both have featured strongly in the past). Our Index now has unemployment above issues such as race relations and immigration (23% and down 10 points since the election), NHS/healthcare (18%, -2) and crime (14%, -11) – all issues that have featured prominently in the last parliamentary year:
As well as the national salience of unemployment, employment is also a local preoccupation. What was striking about our first ever Local Improvement Index poll (June 2012) was how activities for teenagers (35%) and road and pavement condition (32%) – two hardy perennials in the public’s list of local concerns about local quality of life – were joined by job prospects (34%) as top priorities for the local area. This is an important finding because our question asked about improvement (and by implication action) rather than the Issue Index’s perhaps softer measurement of concern.
What is driving this? Unemployment as a percentage of the workforce has risen since the mid-2000s but remains lower than it did in 1993 and 1986. While some economists saw last week’s figures as “encouraging” and “impressive”, others have been more cautionary, pointing out the rise in youth unemployment to 1.02 million and, at 0.9 million, the highest number out of work for more than a year since 2006.
Quite apart from the reality of what is happening, we also know that national coverage matters: issue salience is more driven by, than being a driver of, the media agenda (although they cannot be entirely independent of each other). Lately, politicians seem to have been talking about the economy in different ways; the frame seems to have shifted away from an early-term focus on cuts and Labour’s culpability in the crisis, to mid-term interest in growth, jobs, and which levers to pull. Last week Ed Balls told the TUC Conference he would prioritise ‘jobs before pay’ and the Government’s recent stimulus package for housing and infrastructure was presented as a boost for the ailing construction industry (polls show that the public think that, alongside manufacturing, construction is key to future growth).
Nevertheless, does the salience of unemployment and job prospects matter politically? While in the Index we have an indicator which picks up signals from the public as to what is worrying them the most, people make a distinction between a pressing national issue and an election issue. At the last general election, before austerity and the second dip, unemployment trailed five other issues (including managing the economy which was top, and taxation) as being “important in helping you decide which party to vote for”.
Still, that was then, and the conferences come at a tricky time for the Coalition. Our polls show a settled Labour lead, George Osbourne’s reputation has been badly tarnished and, since 2010, we have seen a 30 point swing towards negativity on the Government’s handling of the economic crisis. By contrast, unemployment has historically been a strength for Labour – the party has typically led the Conservatives by 20 points or more on the issue, even during times of economic difficulty.
There is a geographic dimension to this too; unemployment is significantly higher outside the south and precisely in those regions where the Conservatives need breakthroughs to become a majority party. Our Issues Index shows unemployment to be most salient among residents in Scotland, the Midlands and Wales. Moreover, it is relatively more salient among young people (41% of 18-34s), those in manual occupations (39%), those outside full-time work including the self-employed and part-timers (39%). In fact, the economy has only a slim lead over unemployment among ‘blue collar’ 18-34 year olds; 3 points compared to 31 points among their ‘white collar’ counterparts.
And could unemployment be both an ‘image issue’ and an ‘issue issues’? While Europe, for example, which undoubtedly will feature prominently at Conservative Party conference, is not salient enough among voters to help win or lose votes, the intra-party division it has caused has been corrosive to parties’ image over the years (an ‘image issue’). Europe has consistently languished at the bottom of the Issue Index.
By contrast, the economy is important in its own right but also shapes perceptions of competence – for example, the Major Government never really recovered from ‘Black Wednesday’. Meanwhile, our polls have detected angst about a ‘lost generation’; at the next election all parties will want to present themselves as forward-looking agents of aspiration and social mobility and it will be hard to do this without compelling narratives about job creation.
Seizing control of the issue agenda is always a pre-requisite and the leader speeches have traditionally been key to this. At this mid-term stage, the economy is the issue, as it was on Election Day 2010. However, (un)employment seems to be forging an identity as an issue in its own right, and has potential political ‘bite’.