There is an optimism deficit in British politics. Politicians seem incapable of making a positive argument for anything, including the country itself. The British government’s case in the Scottish independence referendum has been almost entirely negative. Those looking for an uplifting defence of the United Kingdom have been left sorely disappointed as the government has instead stuck to technocratic arguments about why Scotland would be worse off on its own.
This failure north of the border reflects a broader failure to persuade people that Britain has a bright future. Fifty four per cent of Britons think that young people’s lives will be worse than those of their parents’ generation according to a recent Ipsos/Mori poll. Only one in five say they will be better. This majority pessimism helps explain why Ukip is doing so well. As one Conservative minister laments, ‘Ukip has captured a zeitgeist of grumpiness.’ If you believe that things are going to get worse whoever is in government, why not vote for the party that expresses your anger about this most vigorously?
Nigel Farage can now pull off the trick that Nick Clegg performed so effectively in the leaders’ debate at the last election. He can tell people that if they are fed up with politics, vote for him. Farage and Clegg might be very different figures. But Farage could easily echo Clegg’s 2010 call for people who are fed up with the established parties ‘making the same promises, breaking the same promises, making the same old mistakes over and over again’ to come and join him.
Pessimism is on the march at the moment because of three factors. First, the financial crash and the recession have led to a prolonged squeeze on living standards. As Ukip will vigorously point out during the European election campaign, all three main parties have been in power as wages have failed to keep up with prices. Workers have been left complaining that, ‘everything has gone up except my pay’. But the crash also added to a sense that the game is rigged; that the rich keep getting richer regardless. One political campaigner who recently conducted a series of focus groups in marginal seats was struck by how frequently voters complained that they were ‘the mugs’ being taken for a ride by the system, that they were stuck paying their taxes while big companies avoided paying theirs.
Next there is immigration. High levels of immigration in recent years have created a sense of economic and cultural insecurity. Today, 35 per cent of voters say that immigration and race relations trouble them more than any other issue.
The final driver of pessimism is a sense that young people’s lives will be even worse. A cocktail of youth unemployment, tuition fees and rising house prices has created a sense that life is only going to get harder for those who aren’t already well off.
If the mainstream parties want to combat this anti-politics mood then they will have to show people that there are reasons to be optimistic, that things can be better. This is a particular challenge for David Cameron. As the incumbents, the Tories can only win if they can persuade voters that they are getting Britain onto the right track. Miliband, by contrast, wants to portray himself as the politician determined to rip up the economic settlement of the past 30 years and replace it with something new.
The Tories will need to debunk the myths that feed into this sense of pessimism. The danger for politicians trying to encourage optimism, however, is that they are met with cries of ‘out of touch’, that their attempts at reassurance are seen as proof that they don’t get what ordinary people are going through. But it is surely worth pointing out that youth unemployment, when you exclude those in full-time education, is actually falling. Equally, the introduction of tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year has not stopped young people — and, particularly, young people from deprived backgrounds — from attending university. Indeed, the young are now more likely to go through higher education than ever before. But the government has been reluctant to make this case. The Liberal Democrats, for obvious reasons, would rather talk about anything other than tuition fees. While among too many Tories there is a sense that the young won’t vote for them so they are better off concentrating their attention on the old. What they don’t realise is how much the old care about the young’s prospects. One of the key facts in the Labour leadership’s debate about what to do about tuition fees is that the group most worried about student debt is the over fifties.
There is also a need for reassurance. As one Tory cabinet minister argues, disenchantment about immigration can be countered if the government makes clear that it is unapologetic about standing up for British values. Cameron’s recent remark that Britain is a ‘Christian country’ was not only a statement of fact but was also meant to reassure people that the government was determined to celebrate the country’s traditions and its heritage.
The next challenge for Cameron is to show that Miliband is wrong to say that the link between rising national prosperity and people’s family finances is broken. The Tories should have some statistical help on this front over the next few months as wages rise in real terms for the first time in years. But even cabinet ministers admit that people won’t begin to feel better off until this autumn at the earliest.
Cameron’s talk about Britain competing in a ‘global race’ was meant to show how we can prosper in this century. But the problem with it as a political slogan was that it played to the belief that in this era of globalisation, Britain has to run to keep up. This is not what those who want to stop the world and get off want to hear. But there is a good case to be made that the government’s education and welfare reforms should make Britain more competitive in time.
The Tories know that they need to be the optimists at the next election; that’s why the current favourite for their campaign slogan is a ‘Better Future’. But if they are to dispel the national gloom then they will have to have an agenda that shows people that life is getting better thanks to the Conservatives.