It's still the economy, stupid

I have petitioned and campaigned for – and against – many, many thingssince the world of political campaigning crossed my path. But theabsurdity of the thought of running a petition calling for next month’sinflation figure to be cut by at least 0.3% or running a street stalldemanding an extra 0.1% on the third quarter’s GDP growth figure shouldnot become a reason for ignoring economic issues in our campaigning.

For economic issues are crucial to winning support – and if ourtechniques do not easily apply to them, then it is those techniques thatneed adapting. Why do I say that economic issues are crucial? Well – Ihave written before about the significance of the economy to generalelection campaigns and its importance is best summed up in two ways. First, peopleconsistently rate economic issues as amongst the most important inhelping to make up their minds when it comes to voting – especially whenyou add together the numerous different issue labels into which theeconomy is often broken down in polls. As one example – in May 2005YouGov found that it was the third most important issue, even breakingin on that near-holy trinity of health, crime and education we have all(rightly) been taught to use with such effect.

Second, take a step back from our own conduct of campaigns and look athow the rest of the world describes and acts during election campaigns.The economy is frequently at the centre – just as when Philip Gouldwrote to Tony Blair in April 2005 that he should: “drive the election tothe point where it came down to one central question: ‘Who do you trustwith the future of the economy?'”

The regional variation in the Conservative performance in 2005reinforces this message: in the South East the Conservatives didconsistently better than in other English regions and this was theregion which had the worst economic experience, with unemploymentuniquely rising in 2001-2005.

More recently, it is striking that in the successful US Democratcampaigns in Montana, Missouri and Virginia – those which in fact gavethem control of the Senate last year – populist economic messages playeda major role, as did the long-term health or otherwise of the Frencheconomy in their Presidential election earlier this year.

Neglecting economic issues therefore comes at a real cost to ourelectoral prospects. If we are not engaging in a key area for voterswhen making up their minds, we are hobbling ourselves in the electoralrace.

And what image does it leave of us as a party if we skip lightly overthe economic heart of government when laying out our messages? It israther like meeting a police officer who talks their great plans tostart using a low-emission police car, is getting solar panels on theroof of the police station, takes part in a charity stall at the localsummer fair, is introducing organic food to the staff canteen and has aneffective twinning arrangement with a police force in France – butavoids talking about the business of catching and arresting people. Alllovely things – but in the end, isn’t there something rather crucialmissing at the heart of all that?

We have a good basis on which to build – particularly the party’shard-won tradition of not just having fully costed general electionmanifestos, but having costings that stand up to close examination. Thecareful balancing of the details of tax cuts and rises in the “Green TaxSwitch” policy is another good building block. So what more can we do -especially as our traditional campaigning techniques may not seem easilyadaptable to this issue?

First, meeting local businesses should be a part of the diary of MPs,candidates and councillors alongside the traditional hospital and schoolvisits. This is not just a matter of show (though we should of courseget and use photographs) but also a matter of necessity, for by meetingbusinesspeople we are much more likely to pick up the issues of concernto them for us to work on. I have been struck in my own constituencypostbag and surgeries how certain issues naturally raise themselves withme; for example, most weeks I can barely move for examples of problemswith the way our planning system work. But until I started ensuring thatmore business visits were in my constituency diary, the travails andissues of small businesses rarely intruded into my in-tray.

Indeed, thinking back to when I was more involved in my family’sbusiness, I remember how often the words of politicians about theeconomy seemed a stepped removed from the reality of running a business.

That is why meeting and listening is so important. It is just like withthe general public – if you are never on the doorstep you lose touchwith the public, and if you’re never meeting businesses, you lose touchwith them too.

Second, we can emphasise the benefits for business and the economybehind our other policies. The Green Tax Switch is right for the planetbut also – by growing the opportunities for businesses marketing greengoods and services – good for our economy in the long run. It’s not justa green policy, it’s a job creation policy.

Putting effectiveness, not vindictiveness, at the heart of ourcrime-fighting policies is good for the communities who suffer lesscrime as a result – but it is also helping reduce a heavy burden on manybusinesses.

Abolishing the DTI was not just a means to fund our other policies (a policy that now needs updating following Gordon Brown’s departmental reorganisation) – itwas also a good way of attacking unnecessary bureaucracy that afflictssmall firms. Indeed, removing unnecessary restrictions on both peopleand organisations is after all a good part of what liberalism is about.

Simplifying the tax system is important not just for individualsstruggling to cope with Gordon Brown’s morass of tax credits andcomplicated paperwork – it is also important for small businessesstruggling to grow and cope with bureaucratic burdens on them. And atthe more local level of taxation, relating it to ability to pay meansnot just having a local income tax rather than Council Tax, but alsointroducing the sorts of business rates allowances we had in our 2005business manifesto.

Fighting for a fair trade deal for developing countries does not justhelp alleviate poverty in those countries, it also helps globalprosperity. The list goes on and on – and we shouldn’t be afraid ofpointing out the self-interested benefits (such as more jobs) frompolicies that are motivated by higher causes (such as saving theenvironment).

Third, we should remember that people’s perceptions of how the economyis performing are neither set in stone nor outside of our influence. Itis a staple of academic studies that people’s perceptions of how thegovernment has performed on the economy heavily influences how peoplevote. Now – we are well used to the idea of campaigning hard locally tochange people’s views of the track-record of those running the council;we do not need to shy away from bringing similar influence to bear ontheir views of politicians’ economic records – particularly if the PrimeMinister is a former Chancellor of the Exchequer and the leader of theopposition was a top adviser in the Treasury when Britain last plungedinto deep recession!

These three steps – meeting with business, framing our policies in thecontext of their economic and business impact, and talking about theeconomic record – are beneficial in themselves. Even better, though,economic issues help us present one of our core themes in a concrete andpractical manner. “Fairness” is a good concept for gathering up many ofour policies and attitudes of mind, but to make it work as avote-winning and society-changing concept we need to present anddemonstrate the idea of fairness in ways that are persuasive, thatilluminate the concept, that show its practical application, that showwe are in touch with and understand the concerns of non-political people- and that move beyond simply sticking the word on the cover of somedocuments or under the logo on some press or conference backdrops.

This i
s just the opportunity which the economy – and in particulartaxation – provides, because most of the policies I’ve touched on abovecan be couched in just these terms. They are about having policies thatmake life fairer for people and businesses. They take the ideologicalconcept and turn it into practical policies which let us bothdemonstrate why it’s the right concept but also that we are sincere inpromoting it.

Fairness applies in the wider economic picture too, for tackling povertyand social exclusion is essential for helping people to realise theirown potential and to truly prosper in a fair, tolerant and liberalsociety. And this is something that benefits the whole community. We allbenefit from the better public services, the lower crime rates and themore harmonious society that flow from a more content and prosperouscountry. And that’s our challenge to deliver.

(c) Lynne Featherstone, 2007. This article first appeared in Liberator.

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