Why is the national mood so dark when the economic climate is so bright?

There is an assumption Labour will win a third term but in the gloomy context of a low turnout and little enthusiasm
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The Independent Online

In theory the next election should be fought in the context of the all singing, all dancing "feel-good factor", an elusively upbeat political mood that propels grateful voters to their polling stations. Inflation is low and under control. Most people are in work and have large amounts of disposable income. At the same time public services are improving.

In theory the next election should be fought in the context of the all singing, all dancing "feel-good factor", an elusively upbeat political mood that propels grateful voters to their polling stations. Inflation is low and under control. Most people are in work and have large amounts of disposable income. At the same time public services are improving.

Admittedly consumers are taking on high levels of personal debt, but most of them are not doing so recklessly. They make calculations about the security of their work before going on a spending spree. Britain is booming and they want to enjoy themselves.

The feel-good factor surfaced last in the build-up to the 1987 general election campaign. In spite of a partially revived Labour Party, Margaret Thatcher secured her easiest victory. Parts of the economy were soaring and unemployment was starting to fall. In a pre-election budget the Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, cut taxes and increased spending on the NHS. The Tories had regained momentum, having paraded a range of new initiatives at their pre-election party conference in the autumn of 1986. Towards the end of 1986 an opinion poll gave the Conservatives a triumphant nine-point lead over Labour. Britain, or rather parts of Britain, was feeling good about itself.

If that was the case then the country should be partying away now. In 1987 the economic recovery was fragile and limited. There was a five per cent swing in favour of the Conservatives in the prosperous South-east, but the trend was less marked in other regions as they stuttered into life after the deep recession of the early 1980s. In contrast, Gordon Brown's modest exercises in redistribution mean that the lower-paid are one of the main beneficiaries of today's growing economy.

In 1987 there was a clear divide between private prosperity and public squalor, with the quality of some public services declining noticeably. Now schools and hospitals are improving, in some cases quite significantly. Consciously following the Conservatives' 1987 model, the Government has unveiled a whole range of new policies for a third term, giving a renewed sense of momentum. In a reverse of the situation in 1987, there is now an almost universal assumption that the Conservatives cannot win the next election and therefore Labour will stride into a third term feeling good about itself.

All the above is correct, or will probably turn out to be correct, except the last few words. I do not sense those in government are feeling especially good about themselves. The mood is more muted. As far as voters are concerned there has been no overt and celebratory hailing of the feel-good factor. Of course there is an assumption that the Government will win a third term, but in the gloomy context of a low turnout and with little enthusiasm displayed from those who bother to vote.

In 1987 there was a marked decline in support for the Lib/SDP alliance, along with increased support for Labour and a triumphant win for the Conservatives. The traditional two-party system re-asserted itself. Now ungrateful voters are looking elsewhere, at the attractions of other smaller parties.

Why is this darker mood prevailing in such a sunny economic climate? Part of the explanation lies in the paradox of sustained economic stability. It is a much greater achievement to preside over a long steady period of growth rather than a wildly oscillating cycle, but the political rewards are less immediate. Voters begin to take the economy for granted. In 1987 it was a novelty for Britain to enjoy a fleetingly booming economy. Now the Government must find ways of exciting voters about the latest familiarly impressive statistics, yet another month of low unemployment and low inflation.

But this should not be impossible. Governments are pretty good at making the best of terrible statistics, especially this particular administration, which never knowingly undersells good news. At the margins the tendency to oversell is part of a more fundamental problem. The issue of trust whirls around British politics, making it harder to predict what will happen next, polluting what should be an upbeat political mood.

In my view much of this issue, like the related one of "spin", is greatly overplayed by the media. All governments seek to present their case in the best possible light, pushing statistical evidence as far as it can go. As I have written before, Mr Blair has a tendency to hype up every issue more than most, although Mrs Thatcher was not far behind. There is not much wrong with this. Politicians have cases to make and have to make them fairly loudly in order to be heard.

But the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, went too far the other way in a Fabian paper when she argued that: "There are two parallel conversations going on about trust in Britain. One is a private argument among politicians and journalists. The other is among people outside Westminster who have a very personal take on trust..."

Basing her conclusions on 50 meetings with voters, Ms Jowell makes some important points. She argues convincingly that voters are not worried about a nanny state. Rightly she calls this a "Westminster construct". Instead, she suggests that voters seek a relationship with government that combines individual responsibility with an active state. In her meetings she found that voters were more gripped by the need for radical policies on housing, pensions, neighbourhood councils. Large parts of the "private argument" between journalists and politicians pass them by.

Ms Jowell is on to something in her attempts to relay the wide range of voters' concerns and aspirations. I agree with her suggestion that they extend way beyond the Westminster soap opera. Still, I find it unconvincing that she does not mention the war. After the local and European elections every cabinet minister blamed it for Labour's poor performance. They were right to do so. Obviously Mr Blair did not embark on that misguided venture with the intention to mislead voters, but his early decision to remain an unswerving ally of the US led him into all kinds of nightmarish contortions relating to the nature of Saddam's threat and the need to deal with it. Inevitably those contortions are at the heart of the "trust" issue.

The original decision to support the US was partly the consequence of Mr Blair's constant quest for legitimacy and respectability after 18 years in Opposition: He would show that a Labour Prime Minister was capable of being a solidly reliable ally even when the President was a right-wing Republican. Now his government has a problem over being trusted in a way that threatens to undermine its many impressive successes. Instead of reinforcing Labour's claims to be the natural party of government, it calls them into question.

The deep and soundly based feel-good factor competes with other more disturbing themes. When voters are disturbed they are likely to feel less good about themselves.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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