Why do Governments always seem to lose popularity?

Why do Governments always seem to lose popularity?

A guest slot by Nick Palmer

During the last Government, Mike used to point out that governing parties in Britain nearly always decline in popularity after the initial honeymoon, so the writing was on the wall for Labour after 2005. On the Labour side we didn’t like to admit it, but we knew he was right. With rare exceptions (1983 after the Falklands is the glaring one), governments are on the slide within a few years and never really recover. Even Attlee and Thatcher, the twin idols of their respective parties, declined without interruption from their peaks, with Attlee’s huge majority almost evaporating at the first opportunity.

Interesting exceptions were the early Wilson elections in 1966 (after two years) and 1974 (after a hung result earlier that year). Perhaps the decision to lock into a five-year term was a strategic error and going for an early mandate for the new coalition would have been wiser?

But the general rule is steady decline. This is not the universal phenomenon that we think. Most countries have long periods of stable support for a governing party, from the centre-right in Germany, France and Italy to the Social Democrats in Scandinavia. You’d think British voters would lower their expectations, but we nearly always have the same honeymoon-despondency cycle, like eternal optimists on our seventh marriage. Why are we always so grumpy, so quickly?

First, British parties always over-promise to an extent rare in other Western European countries. The normal British growth rate even in good times is 2-3% a year from productivity gains, which is not remotely enough to pay for all the promises that we all make. Thus, in government, either the promises aren’t delivered or taxes unexpectedly rise or there are unexpected cuts.

Second, the parties believe that the relentlessly negative media and by extension the electorate can’t be trusted with an honest deal. If you promise to do X and pay for it with Y, the media (and, of course, your opponents) will highlight Y, to the extent that X is almost forgotten. Before 2010, focus groups found that people liked the idea of austerity in general, but disliked almost any manifestation of it in practice, so early attempts to be frank on all sides (remember Darling’s “greater cuts than Thatcher”) about the potential cuts led to a sharp dips in approval and a retreat into vagueness.

But British politics is as it is, and there is a betting point. The current Government will lose power if it suffers even a little more of voter disappointment, a swing of historically low proportions, perhaps 3%. At present, Sporting Index still rates a Labour government as little more than an even chance. Whatever our personal preferences, objectively the probability is a lot higher than that.

Nick Palmer served as Labour MP for Broxtowe until 2010 and has been posting on PB since 2004

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