Unlike many of Edelman’s other contributors, I’m not a public affairs expert. They deal in complexity and intrigue. I’m a communications professional and we specialise in making the complex simple and turning noise into coherent argument. So let me offer a snap analysis of what happened last night.
It was the economy, stupid. Just as it was in 2010. Just as it has been in almost every election since James Carville drummed it into Bill Clinton’s brain in 1992.
Last night, at the NewsUK election night party, I was surrounded by political junkies feverishly rehearsing every scenario and recalling every bump in the road along the election campaign, attaching great significance to each moment of tepid drama. But as our polling released yesterday showed, people are paying attention to the issues, not the campaign. Labour had a “good campaign”, but it doesn’t matter. The thing that counts is the economic narrative.
While Labour offered a Miliband / Balls leadership combination tainted by 2008 and unable to articulate a coherent economic plan, the Tories did an excellent job of sticking to one simple argument: ‘We’ve done a good job with the economy and the other guys and their mates in Scotland will wreck it.’
All good arguments need to be based on a sound factual basis and the fact is that in the last five years the economy has outperformed all reasonable expectations. The worst fears of 2010 never materialised and the headline figures that matter most to people – jobs and growth – have been strong. While the ‘cost of living crisis’ narrative speaks to a real problem, the coalition didn’t deliver the austerity they threatened to and inequality didn’t get worse.
How then do you explain the LibDems’ collapse? They can mount a convincing argument that they were responsible for many of the best economic policies of the last term but they still tanked. I offer three answers to that. Firstly, they tried too hard to distance themselves from their Tory partners. It worked and they got none of the credit. Secondly, George Osborne has grown in stature, dwarfing Danny Alexander and personifying the economic success. Thirdly, the LibDems have always been artificially inflated by protest voters, who ditched them as soon as they were confronted by a LibDem party in power that had to make tough decisions.
Elections are decided on economic competence. Even more so during times of insecurity and uncertainty. If you’re losing the economic argument, you need to find a better argument, not a different issue to campaign on.
Political campaigners need to learn this lesson fast, because there is an even more important election now looming on the horizon – an in-out vote on Britain’s EU membership.
The Scottish referendum wasn’t moved by misty-eyed invocations of Britishness, it was settled by a hard-headed financial cost-benefit analysis. It wasn’t Project Fear, it was Project Pragmatism.
The EU referendum will be decided the same way. Supporters of Britain’s EU membership will have to ignore all the arguments about accountability, bureaucracy, fraternity, co-operation and immigration. The result will come down to one question: will it be good or bad for the economy?
It’s time to start having that argument now, because campaign periods barely move the needle.