Political effects of past and current economic crises

Below is an account of a recent event hosted by the Nuffield Politics Research Centre (NPRC), based at Oxford’s Nuffield College, taken from the NPRC website with the kind permission of the Centre. The NPRC supports research into accountability, representation, and the study of British elections.

The Nuffield Politics Research Centre (NPRC), led by Professor Jane Green, hosted a briefing and discussion event on the political implications of the current economic crisis and the impact of previous crises. An audience of prominent journalists, politicians and policy-makers joined, asking insightful questions of the academics.

Professor Green said: "Our briefing event was a wonderful opportunity to bring together a very well-informed group of political journalists and people with an interest in, and/or who are working in politics. A long-running goal of the Nuffield Politics Research Centre is to bridge gaps between academic and non-academic audiences, and we hope the event will have gone some way in achieving this." 

Jane Green, Professor of Political Science and British Politics, opened the debate by investigating the question of whether or not the Conservatives will be punished for the current economic situation at the next election.

Professor Green noted that while the material effects of economic crises can be severe, their political importance depends on whether the electorate sees a given party as responsible for them. Drawing parallels to Black Wednesday (1992) and the Great Recession (2008), she argued that the current cost of living crisis looks set to serve as a ‘competence shock’ that transforms public perceptions of the incumbent party’s trustworthiness and capability. These past events also highlight that the electorate is willing to hold governments accountable for presiding over hard times, even when these have plausible origins to global conditions, for example, the COVID-19 Pandemic, the current inflationary squeeze and also the Global Financial Crisis in 2008-9. Long-running polling data shows how the Conservatives have had a lead on Labour over the question of who can best manage the economy for much of the last decade, although they have fallen behind in the past year. History also suggests that competence judgements can be ‘sticky’, and voters may not update their perceptions of how well the government is doing even if the economy improves later on, especially when Labour can frame the Conservatives as culpable (as the Conservatives did to Labour so successfully after the 2010 General Election).

Ben Ansell, Professor of Comparative Democratic Institutions, went on to explain the origins of Britain’s housing crisis.

Using multiple original surveys taken since 2021, Professor Ansell demonstrated that, while the percentage supporting and opposing the construction of new homes in their local area is evenly balanced across the country, the political and demographic make-up of these two groups is fairly distinct. Support for more housing tends to be highest in London and several other major cities as well as Scotland, with opposition concentrated in rural and suburban areas. There is also more support for building houses among people who currently don’t own their own home. Those with the most expensive properties are also supportive. In contrast, people with middling- and low-valued property are the most opposed to house building. The young and most highly educated also tend to show the strongest support, while older individuals with fewer qualifications seem more sceptical. 

This was a challenge for ministers when looking to build more houses in the past. For example, the coalition for home-building lacked a clear majority in the country, and areas and people most opposed to home-building were disproportionately supportive of the Conservative Party, undermining their incentive to increase construction. A delve into the reasons each side gave for their position highlighted the importance of considerations of fairness and affordability for those in favour of more development, whereas concerns about practicality and access to local services (schools and hospitals) dominated for those opposed to expanding construction. 

Broader discussion about the origins of age divisions in recent British elections, and whether, in one participant’s words “young people are too nice” given the lack of evidence for youth backlash against social provision for older adults, drew this discussion to a close.

Jane Gingrich, Professor of Social Policy, Green Templeton College, opened the second half of the briefing and explained how the UK’s economic policy may now be shifting away from the pro-austerity approach of much of the 2010s.

Professor Gingrich discussed the Conservative’s ‘Levelling Up’ policies in the broader post-COVID trajectory of national governments in North America and the EU. Highlighting that these governments are seeking to implement place-based economic strategies, more concerned with geographic inequalities and ‘left behind areas’, which are less hostile now to government investment than in previous administrations.

While arguing that healing some of the geographic polarisation wrought by austerity and the rise of the knowledge economy was important, Professor Gingrich cautioned against believing that this would be a cure-all approach to alleviating populist sentiment and political alienation. She notes that even non-graduates in wealthier areas with access to larger welfare states often share these views and attitudes. A long-term commitment to improving the wellbeing of left-behind places and voters may be needed.

Pepper Culpepper, Blavatnik Professor of Government & Public Policy, focused on the question - does media coverage of inequality have an effect on people’s views about whether the state should do more in terms of redistribution?

Professor Culpepper presented new experimental evidence showing that in five countries; Australia, France, Germany, Switzerland, and the UK, survey respondents who were exposed to information about the level of economic inequality in their country, alongside an editorial emphasising the rigged nature of the current system, became more likely to endorse policies that redistribute income. However, this intervention had no effect on attitudes in a sixth country, the United States. Professor Culpepper’s explanation for American exceptionalism rested on the unusually low levels of trust and confidence in government in the US, which he argued undermined support even for government activities that promise to alleviate a problem which the voter might care about, such as inequality. The implication for the UK and other advanced democracies from framing inequality as being the result of a rigged economic system could well increase support for redistribution. Understanding voters’ media diets, and how these media outlets write about and portray economic issues is, therefore, an important opportunity for future research.

In the plenary session of the event, Kelly Beaver, Chief Executive of IPSOS in the UK and Ireland, helped explain recent trends in public opinion on a myriad of issues from Brexit to the COVID-19 pandemic and the current economy. She also shared information on advances in the polling industry (such as more direct ways to monitor media consumption) and the potential impact of this as we approach the next election. A special emphasis was placed on recent shifts in support for Brexit and Scottish Independence. Professor Green led a final round up of questions on wide-ranging themes on British politics and elections.

The event concluded with an insightful Q&A session, led by Stephen Ansolabehere, Political Scientist, Professor of Government, Harvard University, and election analyst for CBS News. Professor Ansolabehere seamlessly responded to a wide array of questions about the impact of recent events in the United States, from COVID to Ukraine, to inflation to ‘wokeness’, as the country begins to approach a possibly highly fractious next presidential election in 2024. Professor Ansolabehere described how pro-Trump Republican candidates had not been faring well electorally of late, suggesting that their ‘stolen election’ narrative of the 2020 presidential race was both alienating moderates and also (self-defeatingly) lowering turnout among true believers who saw no point participating in a ‘rigged’ contest. However, he also highlighted high inflation and recent Democratic losses in major cities hit by rising crime rates as a major risk for that party going forward.

Our briefing event was a wonderful opportunity to bring together a very well-informed group of political journalists and people with an interest in, and/or who are working in politics.

Professor Jane Green, Director of the Nuffield Politics Research Centre