Monday’s Telegraph published the economic part of their monthly YouGov poll (it also had the best Prime Minister question, which gave David Cameron a 4 point lead over Brown).
Reports of economic questions in polls are always a bit lacking. They inevitably show that everyone thinks we are headed for hell in a handbasket (if they don’t, the papers don’t bother emphasising them), and findings like 56% of people think the economy are reported without much context at all. Is that really bad historically, or are we just a doom-laden bunch of miseries convinced that we’re doomed anyway. The Telegraph article does give a bit of context, it says they’re the worst figures since 1994, but since YouGov has only been polling since 2001 or so that comparison itself raises questions (presumably they are comparing to Gallup, the Telegraph’s old pollsters, which is a poor show).
Looking at YouGov’s question on whether people think the Economic will get better or worse, this month 56% of people thought it would get worse, with only 17% expecting it to improve – a net score (the so-called “feel good factor”) of minus 39. This is indeed the lowest YouGov have registered since they began the tracker in 2003. Looking at the graph below you can see the lines look pretty consistent until September 2007, the month of the Northern Rock collapse. Since then they have been trending negatively. I make no judgement about what state the economy is actually in, but since September the public have clearly been more and more convinced that it’s in trouble.
But what about some context? They may be the worst figures since YouGov began tracking in 2003, but those 5 years have been pretty benign economically. To go back further, lets look at the same question from MORI, who have trackers going all the way back to 1979. Ipsos MORI’s most recent figures showed 55% expected things to get worse, with only 9% expecting an improvement – a feel good factor of minus 46 – and here’s the graph showing the historical figures.
This doesn’t give much comfort to the government. As you can see, people do in general tend to be pretty pessimistic. There are a couple of points where there is a net positive rating (after the 1997 Labour landslide or the 1987 Tory victory, for example) but most of the time we’re comparing different extremes of pessimism.
There are recent drops to compare to current figures – the rating was worse than it is now as recently as February 2003 (the impending war in Iraq perhaps?), it hit what really was the lowest rating since 1979 after September 11th 2001. There is another dip in 1998 that I can’t think of an obvious explanation for. After Black Wednesday in 1992 the net figure was down to -46, the same as it is now and in the dog-days of the end of the Thatcher government in summer 1990 it had descended to a similar level. Before that you need to go back to 1979 – whatever economic turmoil and recessions there were in the early 80s, people were more optimistic about the economy than they are now.
For the majority of the time the figures vary between 0 and minus 30, it normally drops below that score only for brief extreme reactions to unusual events (often non-economic ones that have just shook confidence in general) – the only real exceptions are way back in 1979, the end of Thatcher, and the last year or two when it has sunk below that figure several times.
Compared to ratings in the past, economic optimism really is very low indeed – perhaps even irrationally so. Still, I’m not an economist and I don’t pretend to know what state the economy is actually in, but in terms of public perception things are very bleak indeed.
One getout clause for the government on this is that people do not necessarily blame a poor economic outlook on the government. Populus ask a semi-regular question on whether people think the economy is doing well, and whether or not that is attributable to Gordon Brown. The last time I can find it is back in December 2006, when they found 51% though the economy was doing well, and 40% thought it was doing badly. 47% thought the state of the economy was due to Brown, 44% thought it wasn’t much to do with him.
It maybe that the public with accept that harder economic times are due to the world economy, and not pin any blame on the government of the day. On one level I am sure that’s the case, but on another level I suspect it doesn’t matter. My guess is that hard times will gradually sap support for the government of the day across the board, even if people do not directly blame the government for specific economic problems.