One of the striking features of this bizarre election campaign is the Tories’ puzzled rage at the stubborn refusal of voters to come down decisively in their favour. It’s an attitude that is perfectly captured in this piece from Spectator editor Fraser Nelson in today’s Telegraph.
Fraser’s been looking at the figures and concludes that there has been an “economic miracle”. And like many other Tories, he’s very frustrated that you – the voters – aren’t more grateful. Unemployment is falling, inflation and interest rates are at record lows, even average incomes are finally starting to rise. Cameron should be walking it, for fuck’s sake! But the election is deadlocked. Even the most optimistic Tory supporter has given up hope of winning a Commons majority. All they want to talk about it what might happen if they lose.
Fraser’s slightly complicated (it involves Sweden) diagnosis of the problem is, basically, that Cameron has failed to come up with a vision for the future to put alongside his economic “miracle” of the recent past. My diagnosis would be more straightforward: there is no economic miracle, at least as far as most voters are concerned.
“The economy is doing so well that even the Conservatives struggle to keep up with it,” Fraser says. I don’t see how anyone remotely in touch with ordinary working people could write a sentence like that. Ask most voters – real people on normal incomes who went to comprehensive schools – and the best you’ll probably get is a grudging shrug of the shoulders: “Maybe things are a bit better than they were.”
Fraser talks about job creation and falling unemployment as if all “jobs” are the same. But if you’ve lost a reasonably secure, full-time job with proper wages, and found something on the minimum wage with a zero-hours contract, you’re not going to thank David Cameron much. It still counts as a “job” in the government’s statistics, but it doesn’t count as a reason to vote Tory.
Fraser talks about “zero inflation”, but do you know anyone who thinks their cost of living hasn’t risen in the last five years? I can’t say if the Office for National Statistics are measuring the wrong things (but a “cost of living” index that excludes the biggest cost of living – housing – does seem odd) or whether people’s perceptions are just wrong. But I do know that, when it can cost £321 to go from London to Manchester by train, and a quarter of a million to buy a crappy one-bedroom flat, telling people they’re enjoying “zero inflation” could get you a punch in the mouth. It’s a good way to signal to voters that you don’t know what you’re talking about.
Fraser says “salaries are now rising at their fastest rate for six years”. Well – big deal, after the last five years of falling or stagnant household incomes and blanket wage freezes in the public sector. Does he really expect people to be grateful for this slight uptick, caused more by falling inflation than rising wages? Like most right-wingers, Fraser likes to use “average” (i.e. arithmetic mean) figures for incomes, since it only takes a few people at the top to be doing nicely to create the illusion that we’re all better off. Median figures are much more telling. And this is the figure that’s killing the Tories: after inflation, median wages are still 10% down on 2008. This is the world most voters live in.
And Fraser talks about “billion-hours Britain” – calling on us to rejoice that the number of hours we work is about to pass the billion mark for the first time. It simply doesn’t occur to him that to many working people this just means working harder and longer for the same or lower wages.
Likewise, we hear a lot (although not from Fraser on this occasion) about “record low interest rates”. Yes, the Bank of England’s base rate has been 1% since 2009. But who, exactly, is paying 1%? Can you get 1% on a mortgage, a loan or a credit card? Not a chance. The rates paid by ordinary people are far higher, and have barely changed since the 2008 crash. Low mortgage rates aren’t much use anyway if the price of the house you want to buy has spiralled out of reach. It’s not interest rates that are low, just one particular interest rate. And only a few people benefit from it.
Which brings us to inequality. I don’t doubt Fraser’s sincerity on this: in the face of all the evidence from history, he really believes inequality can be tackled by conservative means. But he’s missing the point: inequality isn’t an “other” issue that voters can safely turn to now the economy’s booming again. “Inequality” isn’t separate from “the economy”, as he seems to think. Inequality is what’s happening to voters now. Inequality is why people look at the same statistics as Fraser and draw quite different conclusions: “That isn’t happening to me or anyone I know. But someone else must be doing all right.”
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think all this is going to win Labour the election. The Tories have probably done enough for middle-class voters to inch ahead as the largest party. But if they still think they’re going to get an overall majority, they’re deluding themselves. Obsessed by the “air war” – in which they bombard voters with the economic statistics they think are important – they haven’t noticed that they’re losing the ground war against the weight of people’s actual experiences. And voters know that people pedalling miracles are usually quacks.
Tories don’t get this because they have no idea what it’s like to be at the shitty end of the economic stick. Or that free-market globalisation is forcing more and more people towards that unpleasant end. They think the numbers look good and expect ordinary voters to be grateful. But people don’t trust government figures anymore; they prefer to go on their own experiences and those of people around them. Hence the Tories’ furious puzzlement when voters refuse to be told they’re better off and dutifully show their gratitude at the ballot box.