Amol Rajan: Focus of any election can determine who triumphs

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It was Chester James Carville, Democrat campaign strategist, who in 1991 started saying: "It's the economy, stupid." This was one of the three messages central to Bill Clinton's successful campaign the following year. The other two were "Change vs more of the same" (which worked later for Obama) and "Don't forget healthcare."

Carville's pithy phrase has infected Western politics so much that it is now the conventional wisdom that elections are won or lost according to the health of the economy. There is strong evidence for this, including basically all the recent election results in Europe, where generally centre-right incumbents have been thrown out by electorates feeling the pinch.

All of which renders the current American election race peculiar. Contrary to the loudest views in their media, Obama's handling of the economy has been impressive. A Depression has been averted, Wall St has been stabilised and jobs and growth are returning – albeit too slowly for America's struggling middle class. But because Mitt Romney is seen to have the upper hand on matters economic, the Obama campaign is seeking to frame the election race as a battle between jobs (Romney) and social justice (Obama). Obama is changing the question put to voters this November from "How rich do you feel?" to "What sort of society do you want to live in?" The latter requires more intellectual effort to answer. It is therefore the wrong question – though so long as Romney is more trusted on the economy, it may be a necessary one.

Jobs versus justice happens to be the context in which Britain will go to the polls in May 2015. That will be a referendum on whether or not Osbornomics and austerity have worked, though Ed Miliband would rather talk about fairness-for-all.

There are two ironies here. First, David Cameron's whole mission as Conservative leader was to be a sociocentric one. He wanted to talk justice, but the effect of his policies (and the Eurozone crisis) is that he's been forced to talk jobs instead. Second, Ed Miliband's mission in politics is to reorder society to make it more just. And yet, on current evidence, the public don't trust him on justice-related matters but could be persuaded that he and Ed Balls called it right when denouncing austerity. Miliband wants to be sociocentric, but an econocentric pitch might be a surer route.

In other words, the jobs-versus-justice debate we have imported from America may force both Labour and the Tories to campaign on precisely the turf they least wanted to.