"Conventional wisdom holds that governments that deliver economic prosperity tend to secure re-election whereas those associated with economic failure tend to lose office." Discussed in respect to the 2001 general election.

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“Conventional wisdom holds that governments that deliver economic prosperity tend to secure re-election whereas those associated with economic failure tend to lose office.” (Sanders and Brynin).  Given that the 1997 General Election was held after a prolonged period of economic recovery in Britain, how can one explain the outcome?  What does it tell us about the value of perspectives that link economic prosperity or failure with election outcomes?  Briefly consider your findings in the light of the 2001 general election.  (You will be given credit for discussing the methodological problems that arise in this type of analysis.)

"It’s the economy stupid" is the famous response (ever since Bill Clinton coined it in his 1992 election campaign) to people who ask what matters in an election.  It is certainly true to say that there is a lot of evidence from electoral research that voters’ choices are conditioned heavily by economic conditions and by their view of the ability of competing parties to manage those conditions.   However, as this essay will show it is people’s perception of the economy and how the parties can manage it, rather than the actual economic prosperity of the country, that affects how people vote.  It can also be argued how far other factors affect voting choice, especially in the post 1997 election period.

Ever since the explanatory power of social class seems to have diminished, and the debate has raged on the extent to which newer areas such as geography can explain variance in British voting, one particular theory-economic voting-has recently gained favour in psychological circles.  Most of the focus for these studies has concentrated upon personal economic expectations; however as the 1992 and 1997 elections show the basis for economic voting seems to lie in the economic credibility of the political parties.

In 1992 Labour had a clear lead on most of the issues that dominated the election, having in-built advantages on the social agenda of education policy, the NHS and unemployment.  The Conservatives only led on economic issues, such as income tax policy.  Despite this apparent imbalance, the Conservatives were able to cash in on their one policy advantage in 1992 and designed their main campaign issue around the issue of taxation.  Despite apparently unfavourable economic conditions in 1992, the heartland of Conservative support-the service sector based electorate in the South of England-failed to turn against the Conservatives.  Choosing to absolve the Major government blame for the new recession, the electorate (particularly the South) was likely to rate the Conservatives as the best party to deal with the economy.  Voters trusted the Conservatives to take them out of the recession, whereas the Labour party had not reformed itself enough to rid itself of its bad economic reputation, and the fear people had of ‘tax, spend and waste,’ that they believed might occur under Labour. This economic competence question was a key feature of most explanations of the 1992 election.

If the issue of economic management was the key reason why the Conservatives were victorious in 1992, it was crucial to their defeat in 1997.  Labours most difficult obstacle to overtake the Conservative reputation was over the issue of taxation. Objectively, the Conservatives were on weak ground, because while they had sharply cut rates of taxation for the highest earners, they had failed to deliver a lighter tax burden for the key groups of targeted voters.  Indeed, after the general election of 1992 the tax burden rose.  Labours problem partly lay in the fact that a powerful and hostile tabloid press reinforced the popular perception of the Conservatives as the more economically competent and prudent party.  This problem was solved for the party soon after the 1992 general election: the catastrophe of “Black Wednesday” (when the government was humiliatingly obliged to withdraw from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in September 1992) destroyed the Conservatives’ reputation for superior economic competence.  On taxation, the second Major administration created a window of opportunity for Labour after 1992.  Forced by economic circumstances to raise taxes, the Conservatives found that they had destroyed their reputation in the eyes of the voters as the low tax party.

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Previous post-war financial and economic disasters (the sterling crises of 1947 and 1967-68, and the IMF loan of 1976-78) had been associated with Labour in office.  The ERM crisis not only made a mockery of Conservative pledges to cut tax “year on year”, it was the most serous economic disaster presided over by a Conservative government since the war.  Since 1952, GALLUP has asked the public which party was best equipped to handle Britain’s economy.  Until September 1992 (with one single exception-during the poll tax protests of 1990) the Conservatives were comfortably ahead of Labour on this question.  This ...

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