Analysis: Ministers urgently need green shoots

By Gideon Skinner

We've had three party conferences, one Cabinet resignation, and 81 Tory rebels on Europe – but where has it left us?

In our latest Reuters/Ipsos Mori Political Monitor, the vote shares of the three major parties have each moved by the grand total of a single percentage point; in other words, hardly at all. Nevertheless, underneath that calm surface there is more of substance we can spot.

First, we have seen the economy strike back. Unsurprisingly, after a first year dominated by arguments over the deficit, a number of other events have had their impact on the public mood, such as the NHS reforms and the hacking scandal. In recent weeks, however, the economy has reasserted its dominance as the talks on the euro zone crisis moved to their climax.

Economic optimism is now at its lowest for over two years, and concern about the impact the downturn is having on people's daily lives is growing. Thirty-five percent say they are worried about their children's job prospects (up from 26% in 2009), and 37% are worried about being able to pay the bills, up from 32%.

The danger for the government is that without many green shoots on the horizon, many more years of this hardly gives them an inspiring story to tell. Already, for example, 77% say the government has done a bad job on keeping unemployment down. The danger for Labour is that despite that, few think they would do any better. It's worth repeating why this is so important: the economy was the number one issue determining how people voted in 2010 (and is unlikely to have got any less relevant since then), and played a large part in its outcome, precisely because on this issue no party was able to conclusively win the public's trust.

Second, we are seeing the persistence of the core Conservative and Labour 'brands'. In spite of all the best efforts of New Labour, and Cameron's policy of detoxification, there is still a sense that the Conservatives are the party of the head (individual responsibility, law and order, and crucially at the moment, managing the economy), while Labour is the party of the heart (fairness, healing social divisions, giving young people the best start in life). Neither party, though, will want to be caricatured simply as the yin to the other's yang. Solely relying on their core vote will not win them an outright majority at an election, which means both will have to reach out to that elusive middle-ground.

The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, really have shaken up their image – unfortunately for them, so far to their disadvantage. Although their share of the vote has stabilised, it's still a long way from where they would like it to be. They seem to be experiencing all the disadvantages of being in government without any of the advantages, unable to carve out a distinctive position in the public's mind.

It is always useful to have a reminder that some events that appear important at the time do not have a lasting impact (perhaps, we the public deserve more credit for the consistency of our political values than we are always given credit for). I recently gave a series of interviews for French TV about the impact that Carla Bruni's baby may have on Sarkozy's ratings (my answer, based on our experience with the children of Blair, Cameron and Miliband, is no lasting impact at all). Liam Fox's resignation might be another good example, as would the riots, which despite the shock to many communities have not seemed to shift political opinions significantly.

Europe is the great old faithful of these, and it reared its head again with the referendum vote. Our most recent poll for the People this Sunday showed that to a significant extent, this is in line with public opinion. Two-thirds want to see a referendum on Europe, and we found the highest proportion who want to get out of the EU since the early 80s (though it is worth bearing in mind that even so 41% would vote to stay in).

However, it is important to remember that while people say they would like a referendum when asked, that does not mean it is at the top of their minds in their day-to-day lives. In our regular Issues Index, it is only mentioned by four per cent, dwarfed by the 68% who say the economy is the most important issue facing Britain.

There is still a long way to go before the election, and time for all the parties to improve their position in the public eye. The picture this autumn suggests however, that they can only do this by grappling with the small handful of key issues that really matter to voters. The rest is just leaves in the wind.

Gideon Skinner is head of politics at Ipsos Mori

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