Saturday, September 20, 2008

A few thoughts about Frank Luntz on yesterday's Newsnight

I'm guessing that most people interested in politics will have viewed the focus group run by Frank Luntz on Newsnight on Thursday and Friday and will be scratching their heads to make sense of it.

To recap - the group of Labour leaners thought Gordon Brown's presentation was awful, didn't like Cameron, didn't know who Clegg was but liked his presentation (though one woman pointed out that it was because as an unknown, they were taking him at face value). Then they dismissed all the contenders to replace Brown (with David Miliband scoring no better than Ed Balls), looked at the greybeards (Straw and Johnson), and then decided that they wanted to keep Gord after all. Oh, and they expressed nostaligia for Blair.

What to make of it? My feeling is that Blair and Brown have been such a solid part of political landscape for so long, that in turbulent times people still wish that partnership was in place. And that if they can't have Blair, they will at least hold onto Brown.

What interested me most was when they were discussing who was to blame for individuals taking on so much debt. One man said that it was Brown's fault, only for a Labour leaner to say, I paraphrase, "how is it Brown's fault if someone chooses to run up large credit card bills?"

This is really important, as I think it divides those who will vote Labour and those who won't. I can illustrate this best with anecdotes.

My mother is a classic floating voter - she voted Tory, but switched to Alliance in 1983 as she thought Maggie was cruel and racist, and Labour only interested in attacking people like her. She voted Labour for the first time in 1997, but LibDem in 2005 because of Iraq. In September 2007, she was virulently angry at Labour over inheritance tax, but was pleased and pacified by the transferable allowance introduced by Darling. She doesn't think the IHT threshold needs to be increased to £1 million, let alone £2 million. "We're middle class people, not millionaires" and "there arn't that many millionaires in this country, there are more important priorities than them".

At the moment, she's in Gordon's camp, and doesn't want him replaced. As far as she's concerned, he's done OK for the country, listened when people like her were upset, and has "a good heart". In her opinion no one else in the political system can match him for experience and she thinks Britain needs an experienced person at the helm. The other thing to note is that she is completely unaffected by the credit crunch or global turmoil. She has never had any debt, bar her mortgage, which she determindly paid off early. She doesn't understand people who have debt and has no sympathy for them trying to blame the government for what she sees as their own failings. Most of her savings are in building societies, and most of her income comes from these savings. She's pleased that interest rates on savings have risen. She's not extravagant but hasn't noticed food prices, because she doesn't eke out the pennies while shopping and she likes the free local bus travel Labour has inroduced for the over 60's (she doesn't drive). She will vote Labour if Gordon is at the helm.

My sister and her husband, in their mid-thirties, are both firmly Labour (no floating for them). They are professionals who are just above the higher rate tax threshold, but don't resent paying the tax. They are not extravagant - they paid off their mortgage a couple of years ago, emulating my parents in ploughing every spare pound into getting rid of debt, security was a priority and living high was not. They feel that the Labour government provided the opportunity of a good job market, and it was up to the individual to seize the opportunity to make good. They are completely unaffected by the current economic crisis. No mortgage outgoings mean lots of savings accruing in building societies. They are green, they don't drive much and my sister grows most of her vegetables. They think of Labour as a positive force that enabled them to get jobs in the first place, which made everything else possible for them. My brother-in-law is from a working class background and is convinced that people like him would never have prospered at all under the Tories. They will vote Labour regardless of who leads Labour.

My other half works in IT as a Java developer. He too is a floating voter, voting Tory till 2005 when he switched to LibDem, and he is now in Gordon's camp because he thinks Cameron is a tosser. As you can imagine we have had interesting political discussions in our household over the last decade - while I was enthralled with Blair in 97, he was suspicious. It wasn't till Blair was leaving that he came round (he liked the Blair skit with Catherine Tate for Comic relief). He supported the Iraq war, while I was furiously against. Switching to LibDem in 2005 was a halfway stage to moving left (people find it hard to move either way in one go), it was nothing to do with Iraq, but about weaning himself off the Tories (he didn't like Michael Howard).

The main thing colouring his "Gordon is good" feeling is that he thinks Britain needs a solid person at the helm, and the economic turmoil hasn't affected him either. He struggled to get work under the Tories after graduating, but refused at the time to believe that Labour would be any better. But his career has taken off in recent years. His firm is struggling to recruit people, and this year he got a 14% payrise because his boss is trying to retain Java developers. He used to have debts before he met me, but doesn't any longer bar the mortgage (any household where my mother's daughters live is debt-averse). He doesn't drive (I ferry us about), so is oblivious to fuel prices, and doesn't notice food bills because they are too small a part of the budget. As far as he is concerned life is great, and he doesn't see the need to change government or PM. He thinks I spend an unhealthy amount of time reading the press and that my fears about the Labour leadership are all down to that.

A pattern emerges here. Those who have benefitted from the long economic boom, where jobs were readily available, and who've seized the opportunities available to make their lives better, will vote Labour.

Those who haven't seized the opportunities available, and frittered their money away instead, will blame anyone but themselves and will try to punish the government for perceived sins, including the sin of not controlling the world oil price and not sending a personal letter to their household saying please don't overload with debt.

The question is, how big is each camp. I fear the former is smaller than the latter.


Anonymous said...

Cheers, that was an interesting read.

There are of course other groups of people who don't fit your model, though. The three groups who come to mind immediately are:

- people who have lost their jobs because of globalisation and although they might have found a new job under a Labour government, didn't have the security to pay off their mortgage as early as your mother

- people who live in Labour areas but are self-employed and do a lot of driving as part of their work

- people who earn small incomes or on fixed incomes like pensioners on a minimum income and for whom food price rises are very noticeable

all of whom could be Labour voters who might switch to the Tories (the latter group more likely to abstain, granted) but who can't be blamed for their predicament.

That's not including the substantial numbers of people who will vote on a general sense of what's going on without being informed about policy and regardless of how they have or haven't benefited under a Labour government.

Anonymous said...

Gee, what with all these people who have done so well because of Labour and who will be voting for them as a result, it's kinda surprising that Labour are 28 points behind in the polls really, isnt it? Or maybe your analysis is wrong? Nah...

snowflake5 said...

tim f - I take your point that most people don't fit the model of my family, but many people do.

My parents are lower middle class - they paid off mortgage early and made savings from a determined effort to live below their means, rather than because of large earnings. My sister and her husband are similar (my brother-in-law comes from a working-class line that still believes in thrift and that getting things on tick is evil). There are lots of people like them out there.

It's possible that they are out-numbered by those who lived high, spent everything they earned and accrued high debts in the effort to live the Beckham lifestyle on average wages.

My point is that those who believe that it's down to the individual to arrange their finances will probably vote Labour, especially if they've seized the opportunities afforded them by the Labour decade. Those who haven't managed so well will of course blame govt first and absolve themselves of all fault.

Anonymous said...

Anecdotes does not equal data.

Have a look at the recent poll of 34,000 real people,seems that most of them regard Brown as a complete tosser.

Labour will always maintain its core vote of some public sector workers,benefit claimants,ethnic minorities,immigrants and Guardian reading assorted lefties.

Mark Wadsworth said...

Look on the bright side, at least tractor production is up!

snowflake5 said...

broncodelsey - that politics home poll is six weeks out of date - which means it has missed the global turmoil that saw Lehman Brothers go to the wall, and Comrade Hank Paulson of the US Treasury nationalise Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, and AIG, plus announce that the US government was going to take all toxic debt off the books of the banks.

It's a political earthquake, and the mood has definitely changed. The Tories with their talk of inheritance tax breaks for millionaires and further deregulation of the markets seem like people on the wrong side of history.

Anonymous said...

Agree it's a political earthquake,makes Brown look even worse.

Brown's city regulation changes totally hopeless,after 11 years he wakes up to short selling (or maybe just trying to find a scapegoat).

More taxes,more debt and house prices rapidly going south,and I forgot to mention his instructions to the CEO of Lloyds,Scottish jobs to be saved and screw the English and Welsh employees.

Brown's not on the wrong side of history,he is history.

No more boom or bust anyone???

snowflake5 said...

broncodelsey - The Big Bang of deregulation of the city came under the Thatcher government - i.e. letting retail banks get involved in investment banking and selling securities. Before that there was a firewall between retail banking and the City.

And the Tories are promising less regulation than Labour, indeed they've spent the last 11 years arguing that the financial markets should be deregulated further.

It's a political earthquake because the deregulation set in train by Thatcher-Reagan over the last thirty years is deemed to have failed. The consensus is that free markets don't work and Big Government and nationalisation is good. And the Conservative party are on the wrong side of that argument.

Nicky said...

Cheers, Snowflake, a good read - and I agree with your argument.

A sizeable chunk of the media seems hell-bent on promoting the idea to people that their financial woes are the fault of the government. There was a Despatches programme on C4 tonight which was linking the credit crunch with 'disillusionment with Labour'. What I saw of it looked like a party political broadcast for the Tories.

Pessimism and panic is being engendered in the media. And yet the situation we're in presently is a long way from the economic crises of the 90s.

Anonymous said...


When we discussed personal bankrupcies you discounted the evidence from my wife who is an Insolvency solicitor as acedontal, not like your statitics. Now you are relying on acedotal evidence to support your case.

There are a huge number of people who don't fit your family template. I think the opinion polls are a better guide to the nation as a whole, and they don't seem so grateful to Gordon Brown. Personal debt is now over 1 trillion pounds. This gives ordinary people (whio unlike your sample have large mortgages and debts) less space to deal with the any problems like job losses that the downturn will throw at them. Gordon Brown had 11 years in which he could have acted to try to moderate the growth in personal debt but in fact the government has promoted it (University tution fees being an example).

Fiscally we are one of the worst placed major economies to face this downturn. The government can blame no-one but itself for that.