In March of 2012, the Conservative Party appeared to be on the cusp of developing a reputation not only for economic illiteracy, but for public relations incompetency. Following a decision by the then-Chancellor, George Osborne, to simultaneously introduce a tax hike on Gregg’s pasties and a reduction in the top rate of income tax, the opposition Labour party proceeded to chalk up a 10 point lead over the governing Tories. (Their success was, presumably, not aided by efforts like this).
Labour’s ascendency in the polls came to most as a shock. In the months leading up to Osborne’s infamous ‘omnishambles’ budget, Britain’s two major parties had been broadly neck-and-neck in the polls, as newly elected Labour leader, Ed Miliband, somewhat strangely struggled to make inroads against what was in essence a ruthlessly austere government headed by multi-millionaire old-Etonians.
But while the Tory’s deficit-reduction agenda might been broadly unpopular from an emotional standpoint, their fiscal position at least commanded a level of respect – something that’s necessary, and perhaps even sufficient, for the survival of a centre-right government. To varying extents, most accepted the need for some reductions in government spending, and a great many were happy to see the back of the fiscally-careless government of Gordon Brown which had left the nation with a budget deficit of 11% of GDP.
The problem, then, for Osborne’s treasury was that after the 21st of March 2012, the all-important respect the Chancellor had accumulated began to evaporate – and there was little in the way of goodwill for the government to fall back on. It was from this point on that every political commentator and prognosticator (with the exception of one Dan Hodges) closed-ranks behind the idea that the Conservatives had no hope whatsoever of winning the 2015 general election. The notion that Miliband’s ascendency to the premiership was a once-improbable inevitability became the fashionable prediction – but something, of course, got in the way.
Conventional histories of the 2015 general election will likely claim that Labour’s defeat was a consequence of their failure to speak meaningfully and convincingly about the structural deficit and limitations to governmnt spending. Since taking office in 2010, the Conservative-Liberal coalition government reminded the public ad nauseum that they had inherited an untenable fiscal position, and in consequence would have to make “difficult decisions”. This piece of political messaging fast became a philosophical mantra. Those who questioned its pertinence were considered either an out-of-touch elitist, likely with a degree in PPE from Oxford, or conversely, an ill-educated and delusional Green Party door-knocker.
Strangely, this was ostensibly something that the Labour party failed to realise. During the 2015 election campaign, one of the more memorable moments came as Miliband explained in a nationally-televised town hall event that he rejected the charge that Labour had simply spent too much throughout its time in office. David Cameron, a skilled and experienced political showman, wasted no time in capitalising on Miliband’s miscalculation: In the same television event, the then-Prime Minister proceeded to read this note, and the whole affair felt like something of a knock-out punch for the beleaguered Labour leader.
But while it seems natural to look to landmark campaign moments when attempting to explain an election result, there was something deeper and more sublte at play; something that tugged on the hearts and minds of the British public in a way that the macro-economic blame game never could.
For some time in British politics, the numerical units used to inform political debates were hundreds and millions. Indeed, prior to the financial crisis of 2008, the word billion was to some degree absent from the British political lexicon. It was an almost uniquely American word, so much so, in fact, that I recall spotting in the footnotes of papers authored by American academics playful sentences along the lines of “for the benefit of my British readers, that’s billion with a ‘b’”.
The British political class’ aversion to the word billion was never more apparent that during the 2010 general election debates. In response to the rumour that the opposition Conservatives planned to make savings of £6,000,000,000 (that’s billion with a B), then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown chose to warn us that the Tories would make cuts totalling “six thousand millions”. It was an odd turn of phrase. Of course, it’s possible he assumed not enough of the electorate would even know what a billion was. Irrespective, however, of why Brown decided on ‘thousand million’ instead of ‘billion’, it was a classic case of ‘small-ball’ economic messaging.
Brown’s penchant for small-ball messaging was something that remained a hallmark of Labour’s economic planning throughout Miliband’s tenure as leader. The 2015 Labour party manifesto was replete with references to the party’s favoured numerical units: hundreds and millions. Signature policies that came with a price-tag included the Mansion Tax on homes valued at over £2 million; the freeze on energy prices, expected to save families £120 per year; the plan to increase the bank levy by £800 million. In addition to the party’s hundreds-and-millions proposals, Labour reached ‘peak small-ball’ with its plans to increase the minimum wage to £8 p/h, and the “toddler tax credit” that would give families with one and two year-olds an eye-watering four pounds per week.
None of this is to say that Labour’s policies were in any meaningless. There were, of course, some for whom the £8 minimum wage was a significant draw, and the £120 per year energy bill saving was nothing to be sniffed at. But the point nonetheless remains that give-aways in the hundreds rarely turn heads, and do even less to get people out to the ballot box.
At the time the Labour party was busy championing its small-ball economic platform, the Conservatives were talking almost exclusively in the thousands and billions. On childcare, for instance, the government was promising £5000 worth of free childcare for working parents; the Chancellor pledged to increase the tax free personal allowance by £2000; and on the NHS, the Tories committed to infuse the ailing system with an extra £8 billion per year. Importantly and cleverly, Conservative strategists outlined the increase in the personal allowance as a direct response to Labour’s £8 p/h minimum wage increase. This meant that while Ed Balls was stuck talking in pounds and pence, Osborne was able promise tax payers a saving that would come close to one thousand pounds per year by the end of the next parliament.
Unlike Labour’s rail-fare and energy price freezes that would save tax-payers no more than a couple of hundred, the Conservatives campaign pledges were, in a very meaningful sense, game-changing for many. A thousand pounds is, after all, a family holiday; a significant contribution to a new car; a new kitchen from Ikea; a new family computer; or simply just a level of added security. Such a level of money is enough to win hearts and minds. And it’s enough to get someone out to the ballot box.
The Conservatives’ use of the thousand-pound unit in their micro-economic messaging was set against the backdrop of their five-year ownership of the billion unit, and when taken together, every Tory policy sounded significant. By 2015, every voter was aware the country’s economic challenges could be met only by either spending or cutting billions of pounds. The government knew this and in turn decided to make every policy announcement sound more like major economic surgery than mere New Labour-style tinkering.
The consequence of this was that the Conservatives went into the general election possessing the appearance of a party that not only had the macro-economic situation under control, but which also intended to allow voters to keep a not-inconsiderable portion of their annual pay. The way the party achieved this was a talk big on both the macro and micro economic fronts. In other words, thousands and billions became reasons to turn out and vote for the Conservative party.