Labour’s economic attack: Act II

Written by: Marcus Roberts on 25 October, 2012
Filed under Democracy, Economy

“Too far, too fast.” “A double dip recession made in Downing St.” “Jobs-and-growth.” EdB’s flat hand gesture.

This has been 2012’s political narrative on the economy. And it is to the remarkable credit of both Ed’s that is. Because bad economic stats don’t automatically translate into Opposition cut-through with voters yet Labour’s attack lines have resonated from lobby briefings to doorstep canvassing. And as any reading of the polls affirms, nothing hurt the government as much this year as the fallout from the budget and the Omnishambles that followed.

But politics is about What’s Next and that’s why the return of growth and, one assumes, a non-kamikaze Pre-Budget statement next month, means Labour must move the economic story on.

In short, it’s time for us to turn the economic argument from the national and statistical to the local and personal.

What does that mean for our economic messaging in 2013? It means less of a focus on big ticket national economic numbers like GDP or central government borrowing and more of an emphasis on the state of regional and local economies. It means less of a messaging focus on the macro-economic picture and more emphasis on kitchen table economic matters. Simply put, Labour should put issues like local unemployment levels and higher cost of living at the heart of its economic critique.

Because the likelihood is that come 2015 the national economic picture will be deceptively positive – growth in the South will mask a largely jobless recovery in the North whilst everywhere families will continue to feel the pressure of high bills, minimal pay improvement and higher rent an mortgage costs. One Nation Labour can’t just be satisfied with Southern growth but must strive for an economy that works for all of Britain.

This political concern is backed up in the economics by both the Resolution Foundation’s Gavin Kelly’s worrying data on growth’s
poor relationship to living standards and the TUC’s Duncan Weldon who made the case in his Fabian Review essay earlier this year for guarding against a recovery that leaves the Squeezed Middle still out in the cold. After all, what difference does the return of growth mean to a family struggling from rising prices and frozen wages?

By pivoting to an economic message that emphasizes these things Labour can leave the Tories in the position of spouting economic stats that have little relation to people’s real lives. Instead, Labour can tell stories about the pressure families face and the difference a Labour government can make with actions like utility company regulation to bring prices down, the living wage, vocational training and even radical ideas like rent caps to control spiraling housing costs. In wonk-speak: predistribution!

That sets the scene for a 2015 clash of message frames between Tories with stats and Labour with stories. The stats are deceiving. The stories will resonate.

Elevating the Squeezed Middle message to the core of Labour’s economic critique will strip the Tories of their last deus ex machina hope for winning the election: that national economic numbers -increasingly divorced from actual economic reality for millions of voters – can somehow save them from their reckoning with voters whose livelihoods their failed policies have hurt so deeply.