Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Great recessions don't necessarily make governments unpopular

Well, today what we've known for some time became even clearer: we're all going to be feeling a lot poorer over the next two years. An Institute for Fiscal Studies report is absolutely adamant that unemployment will rise, incomes will stagnate, poverty will go up, and inflation will probably remain stubbornly high. Even those of us who still have jobs will feel less well off and more insecure.

Bad news for a government which is going to preside over the fastest fall in living standards since the mid-1970s?

Well, you'd think so. But I think that's unlikely, and twentieth century British history is in fact pretty clear that governments need not suffer in such circumstances.

For one thing, all elections are a choice between alternatives. The electorate shows absolutely no desire whatsoever to elect a left-leaning government under Labour's leader, Ed Miliband. Impressions of political leaders are settled very early in every Parliament. William Hague looked dead in the water very, very quickly - as even some of his own party grandees said at the time. So did Iain Duncan Smith. So, to go further back, did Michael Foot. That's one political reality that's not changed.

Neither has the aura of success or failure. It will escape most people's notice that the IFS has long been saying that the next few months and years will be the worst since 1975 and 1976 - just as spending cuts on a very similar same scale to those years rain down on an anaemic recovery. But the Labour governments of that time, led first by the wily Harold Wilson and then the avuncular, popular, 'normal' Jim Callaghan, were relatively popular - until the Winter of Discontent brought British social democracy crashing to the ground. Why? Because its leaders looked like they knew what they were doing. Because they were able to say 'we inherited a mess'. And because the Labour Party represented many of the British people's instincts about how to ride out an economic and social crisis.

Sound familiar?

It is of course always possible that the Coalition will run into its own crises - more about this later in the week, especially if the Defence Secretary is forced to resign - but at the moment, the constantly-worsening news from the economy doesn't mean anything is settled about the future of British politics.

Modern political history tells us only that ongoing and chronic recessions create political opportunities. But someone has to go out there and seize them. At the moment, that's David Cameron.

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