Voters wary of economic booms

Academics say electorate judges government on whole record
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Indy Politics
The good news for the Conservatives is that the economy does make a difference to votes. The bad news is that voters judge a government on its entire record, and not just what happens in the few months before the election.

These findings suggest that the Government's bid to exploit the economy in its "Britain is Booming" campaign could prove futile.

Two academics, Colin Wren at the University of Newcastle and Daniel Dorling from Bristol University, find themselves agreeing with Kenneth Clarke's often-repeated assertion that manipulation of the economy for political purposes around election time is not credible. As recently as this month the Chancellor said in a speech: "The story is not `boom boom Britain'."

This week, however, the Conservative Research Department sent out a pamphlet titled "One Week in Booming Britain" listing a week's worth of news items showing the economy in the brightest possible light, ranging from the official figures on unemployment (down) and retail sales (up) to the success of British designers in the Paris fashion week.

But the new research, presented at the annual conference of the Royal Economic Society yesterday, suggests the economy only delivers votes if it has been performing well for a sustained period. There is no evidence that events nearer to the election date carry greater weight with voters.

They conclude that a pre-election boom will carry fewest votes when it is most needed by the incumbent Government. The electorate is unlikely to be fooled by a late improvement in economic indicators.

The research shows that the economy did significantly affect the Conservatives' share of the vote at constituency level in the past three general elections.

House prices and unemployment were the most important influences. Falling inflation only mattered in 1983 because it had been so high beforehand, and faded in importance when it was lower in the subsequent campaigns.

In the 1987 general election the economy contributed nearly 5 per cent to the Conservatives' 31.8 per cent share of the vote. It was the fact that house prices had been climbing and unemployment falling for some years that made such a big difference.

In 1992 there was little economic influence on votes. Although unemployment had continued to fall, it was offset by the collapse in house prices.

This time around the fact that unemployment has been on a downward trend since the end of 1992 should help the Government. But the upturn in house prices is less than a year old.

The authors warn too, that they can not rule out the possibility that the Government's humiliation over the pound's exit from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism has permanently changed the links between the economy and votes.

A separate pamphlet published yesterday, by the Conservative-leaning Centre for Policy Studies, claimed that the British economy has undergone a "miracle". Author Keith Marsden, more in tune with the Chancellor's views, argues that the UK has been one of the best performing big economies over the past 18 years.