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It's the standard of living, stupid

By Harry Phibbs
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In the 1997 General Election campaign the Conservatives ran a huge advertising campaign with billboards across the country bearing the legend:

Britain is booming. Don't let Labour blow it.

The message was true. The economy was in a very good shape. After a couple of years of prudence Labour did gradually blow it. However, this was not an effective slogan for two reasons.

Firstly, it was boastful. This was particularly ill-judged as many felt that the economic revival had something to do with our exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism - an outcome the Government had been striving to avoid. In any case, for Conservatives particularly, humility is a more fitting message. Government's don't create wealth and jobs. They can avoid getting in the way. Any claiming of credit for success should be seen in these terms.

Secondly, for those who don't feel their fortunes are "booming" this sort of message will be resented.

Given this background, the Conservatives need to careful about their tone in proclaiming the economic recovery. They should probably only talk about it in the context on how much more needs to be done to encourage enterprise. The recovery will get plenty of attention from commentators anyway without Ministers talking about it. When the subject crops up in media interviews it should be Ministers who switch it to: "Yes but we are still concerned that more needs to be done and that's why we are doing xxxx..."

It is true that Labour's credibility has been undermined by betting on failure - on the economy flat-lining and other reforms on welfare and education failing to deliver.  However, Labour's message that many are still struggling while the Government are complacently celebrating prosperity for the boss class has some "traction."

Bill Clinton's strategist James Carville said: "It's the economy stupid." But for the next election, perhaps: "It's the standard of living, stupid".  If most people's wages are not rising faster than prices then it is not a recovery for them, whatever the barrage of positive economic statistics might say.

In substance the Conservatives have plenty to offer on living standards. Tax cuts is an obvious help. It is also the Conservatives who champion shale gas which offers some prospect of relief from rising fuel bills. Conservatives are the most sympathetic to those struggling to get on to the ladder of home ownership.

Yet the tone matters as well. In this respect the Conservatives should defer to their Lib Dem coalition partners. Despite the good news, the gloomy caution of Vince Cable still matches the mood better than the bourgeois triumphalism of George Osborne.


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