As Martin Wolf reminds us in this morning’s FT, the economic cycle has a behavioural underpinning: stability creates instability (it fosters behaviour such as complacency amongst regulators and greater risk taking in business).
Politicians in Government are subject to a similar tragic irony: success becomes irrelevant. The electoral salience of an issue reflects the level of public concern. One consequence of today’s good unemployment figures is that jobs move further down the list of the voters’ priorities. This helps explain why those in charge of the country – who we might expect to transmit a message of calm and optimism – often seem to be in the business of stirring up public anxiety (for example, in relation to immigration): parties don’t just need to persuade people they have an answer to a problem, they also have to persuade them the problem is big and dangerous.
Among pollsters, politicians and commentators there seems to be a consensus on what the battleground issues will be at the next election. It is worth considering whether they are wrong. For, if by May 2015 people have become used to economic growth, if living standards have started to pick up with the prospect of more to come, if austerity is still not seeming to impact on the views of those most likely to vote in key marginals and if the feared hordes from Eastern Europe continue not to show up, then these currently poll-topping issues may turn out not to be as dominant.
Politicians, like generals, have a tendency to keep fighting the last war. Indeed, the danger in 2015 for the Coalition parties may have peacetime parallels with Churchill’s nasty surprise in 1945. The Government could fight an election on its success in winning the economic war but find an electorate more interested in who can make the most of relative peace. Not that the parallel between the Second World War and the global credit crisis works for Labour (not only was it not blamed for the former, it was a key partner in the wartime coalition).
The electorate in spring 2015 could be receptive to a new, more expansive, pitch. But how might something like this emerge? To experiment with a narrative that peaks next spring will mean starting to unveil it before the public is ready, thus providing an opportunity for the political media to undermine it almost before it has been noticed.
Earlier this week I was at a dinner with a thoughtful and impressive senior Number Ten strategist. As someone involved in manifesto writing, he asked how his Party could escape the long term and dysfunctional tendency for the number of specific policy pledges made to NGOs and sections of voters to increase at every election (there were apparently over 650 such promises in the last Conservative manifesto). This temptation made be even harder to resist in 2015 given that, beyond economic growth, a combination of austerity and a very mixed record on policy means the Coalition won’t have much in the way of concrete service improvements or outcomes to trumpet. This problem of a weak record beyond the economy will be exacerbated if the crime figures are about to start rising.
The odds are that the next election will be about blame and credit for the past and an unedifying retail sale of pledges for the future. Yet my sense of what the country needs and what voters may be ready to hear, is a message broader, braver, more engaging and uplifting. Something about the kind of country we want to be and the kind of choices our collective aspirations involve not just for Government but for us at citizens.
The RSA's contribution to such a debate might involve advocating an ambition for the UK to be the most creative country in the world and then to explore the implications for education, public services, cities and business.
For many understandable reasons it is unlikely the political class will summon up the courage to debate shift in this way. Maybe it is up to us the punters. A new topic for discussion: what I would like the next general election to be about.