Deborah Mattinson: Can cautious Philip Hammond cut through with voters?
The chancellor may have been more interested in appealing to Tory MPs when he delivered his Spring Statement.
The polls have been stubbornly fixed at neck and neck for months now with neither party seeming able to pull into a clear lead. Of course, the party of government has more levers to pull and, historically, the budget and the (then) Autumn statement were key tools to drive attitude change. That said, my own experience of monitoring voters’ views when Gordon Brown was chancellor taught me that people tend to notice very much less than you hope they will (though that did not stop him from trying)
Last November’s budget was no exception: voting intention did not change at all. Philip Hammond had been in the job for more than a year but our focus groups told us that few voters recognised him - and almost half of those polled immediately after the budget said they actually didn’t know if he was doing a good job or not ( almost 2/3 didn’t know whether shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, would be any better either). I would not have much enjoyed talking Gordon through findings like that back in the day.
In the past, politicians worked extremely hard to establish their economic credentials. They did this because they had to: back then, economic credibility mattered much, much more than anything else in a party or leader. It was a rare election where the winning party was less trusted to run the economy than the loser.
Yet the conventional wisdom of ‘it’s the economy stupid’ has been significantly challenged in recent times. The shift was most apparent during the EU referendum where many voted Brexit irrespective of its impact on the economy. Last year, when BritainThinks asked 100 representative voters to keep diaries, recording their unprompted views about politics, the most striking insight was how few even mentioned the economy. Once at the top of people’s concerns, the issue now trails behind the NHS, immigration, housing, education and, of course, Brexit.
And yet gloom about voters’ future finances is at an unprecedented high. This is especially true of younger voters, many of whom feel excluded from economic ‘wins’ like home ownership, suggesting this won’t change any time soon. Our mood of the nation study at the turn of this year showed 6 out of 10 feel pessimistic about the economy generally with 87% expecting the cost of living to rise this year. It also revealed even greater anxiety about the future of public services, especially the NHS, while recent polling hints that voters’ appetite for austerity may be waning.
All this means that the political dividing lines are set more clearly than they have been in years. John McDonnell attacked what he called the ‘indefensible spectacle” of a chancellor ‘failing to lift a finger for struggling councils and the NHS.” The big question now is the extent to which voters really have moved on from austerity: polling for the Legatum Institute last Autumn suggested that, although support for more spending on the NHS was high, a small majority still believed that ‘austerity must continue’
So, against this backdrop, will the Spring statement be a game changer? Expectations were carefully managed up front. We were told that the statement itself would be short and warned not to expect a Brown or Osborne-style rabbit to be pulled out of the hat. Hammond was true to his word, offering very cautious optimism on growth and borrowing and even more cautious public spending promises.
But context is all and voters respond differently to policies, depending on who is promoting them. The Tories have been more trusted to run the economy, especially recently, while Labour is more trusted on the NHS.
People may not be talking much about the economy, perhaps assuming that it is in the hands of competent caretakers, but they are talking a lot about risk to the NHS and the impact of council cuts. It could just be that the Tories have missed an opportunity to break the electoral deadlock with a ‘steady as we go’ Spring statement. But then again, consistent with much else that this government does, maybe Tory MPs rather than the country as a whole were Hammond’s intended target audience for this particular set-piece announcement.
Deborah Mattinson is founding partner of international insight and strategy consultancy Britain Thinks and former chief pollster for Gordon Brown.