We don’t yet have much actual polling evidence to show us what the effect of the economic crisis is upon public opinion. The expectation seems to be that it will aid Gordon Brown and there are some voices calling it Brown’s Falklands moment (see the bottom of this post for a comment on that) but equally others like John Rentoul, James Forsyth and Iain Martin are saying it spells doom.
The latest figures from PoliticsHome’s Phi5000 daily tracker of opinion amongst their panel has Brown’s ratings moving up steadily since conference, with an increasing proportion of people seeing him as strong, competent, effective… all the sort of positive things that people used to think about Gordon Brown before they decided he was none of them. We don’t have any headline voting intention figures yet that will tell us the effect on topline figures, but my expectation is that they will show an improvement for Labour.
This is to be expected. The present situation is working strongly in Gordon Brown’s favour in several ways. Firstly, it has shored up his own position and taken away a negative media narrative. Prior to conference the polical dynamic at play in the media was “when will Labour kick out useless Gordon?”, the press were filled with speculation about how he would be done in, every announcement was hailed as a feeble attempt to shore up his position and so on. Now that narrative has been pushed out of the media narrative, so Brown is gradually looking less weak, his party less divided.
Secondly, it plays to his strengths. Gordon Brown can portray himself as a serious experienced figure, making incredibly important decisions about how to save the economy, taking decisive action, doing something, fighting to protect the country against the turmoil. Suddenly Brown can look like that strong, decisive figure he once did and can talk about hard economic subjects where his lack of empathic language or charisma isn’t such a weakness.
Thirdly, it gives Brown a purpose. One of the causes of the Brown government’s poor ratings has been his inability to put forward any compelling vision or purpose as to why he is there. What exactly is the point of his government? Events have provided Brown with a purpose, to save the economy, and a reason for people to support him and his government.
Fourthly, the opposition have been pushed out of the picture. On the economy, they can only offer bi-partisan support and try and look like they have some influence. On other subjects… at the moment there are no other subjects.
So, in conclusion this is a thoroughly good thing for Brown? No, probably not. In the next few weeks or months they will help, but in the long term, things still look bleak.
This new media narrative won’t last forever. The public get bored, and the media get bored. At the moment there is a new low for the FTSE, a new banking collapse, a new rescue plan every day, the pure volume of economic bad news pushes everything else off the agenda. It won’t last, there are only so many banks, only so many recovery plans. That is not to say that the economic problems won’t last months or years, but that this “active phase” cannot. Eventually a recovery plan will work, the economy will stablise and start the road to recovery – or it will totally collapse. Either way, the media narrative will move on. People will not buy newspapers for long if every single day the headline is “FTSE breaks new low”… eventually it will be on page 2, then page 5, then page 94. Then, it’s back to politics as usual.
Secondly, the situation won’t play to Gordon Brown’s strengths for long. Right now it is he – not David Cameron – who is really the “man with the plan”, but it is only one plan. One cannot keep on presenting recovery plans and gaining from it, if you present lots of recovery plans and the economy is still a basketcase, it portrays you not as being strong and competent, but as being ineffectual.
Thirdly, there is unlikely to be good economic turnout from this. However well the rescue plan works, the real question is how long and how deep the recession ahead is. There is going to be a lot of financial pain for people, a lot of unemployment, reposessions, a lot of tears and misery – a lot of people looking to a government to help them, when that government’s coffers are empty. Regardless of how much of it is actually his fault, this is going to happen on Gordon Brown’s watch, and some of the blame will attach to him.
Fourthly, the underlying figures are still awful. Despite the boost in his ratings, Brown’s figures are horrendous, we are talking about deficits in the low teens as being an improvement for Labour. The recent Populus poll, which would have started seeing the first effects of the economic crisis on public opinion, still showed that 61% of people thought it was “time for a change”.
In the short term, my prediction is this will be a positive for Gordon Brown and Labour in terms of public support. In the longer term, I expect it to be bad.
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*Falklands effect. Just for reference, prior to the Falklands War Gallup showed the Conservative party two points behind Labour and the Alliance, CON 31%, LAB 33%, All 33%. Three months later they were seventeen points ahead of the Alliance, CON 45%, LAB 25%, All 28% – a 19 point transformation in the party lead. We’ve got rather a long way to go before it bears comparison to the Falklands effect.