Professor Richard Rose

Ordinary people spend only a few hours during the life of a parliament thinking about how they will vote when a general election is held. This does not mean that their mind is a political blank sheet that can be filled by tweets by parties and shouted exchanges by party leaders. When it comes time to vote, people draw on their own experiences over the past five years to decide how to vote.

People do not need to wait for the media to broadcast monthly economic statistics to know what's happening to their cost of living. They learn about it every time they check out at a supermarket or put petrol in their car. What they learn at firsthand is that the cost of living is going up. Each month their credit card statement summarizes how much their bills are going up and their monthly bank statement can show that the pot of money they have been saving to replace a worn out car is shrinking.

In a majority of households, at least one member wants treatment at least once a year. This means that upwards of half the electorate knows how long it can take to get an appointment for non-urgent treatment in the National Health Service each year. Reducing the number on waiting lists by 1 million will still leave almost 7 million people paying the cost of an underfunded NHS.

The prime minister may be factually correct to say that the monthly rate of inflation is going down from one month to the next, but this ignores what matters to ordinary people: the cumulative effect of rising prices from one year to the next. By the most favorable measure, consumer prices have “only” gone up 23 percent since 2019. However, the costs that people see weekly, food costs, have risen by more than 30 percent since the last general election.

Statistics may show that average wages are rising at a faster rate of inflation but ordinary people may see the opposite in their pay slip. Up to one-third of a pay rise is likely to be deducted in marginal income tax and national insurance contributions and upwards of one-half of the increase will go in tax if a person is pushed into a higher rate tax band. Moreover, millions on variable rate mortgages have experienced worse: their disposable income can fall sharply when their monthly mortgage bill rises.

The contrasting ways that politicians cite statistics does not necessarily mean that the numbers cited are false. Each chooses figures that are most favourable to their own party, whether it be the direction of change from one month to the other or the cumulative extent of change over the life of a parliament. Neither is the most effective way to communicate with voters.

Ronald Reagan showed the best way to talk about the cost of living was to avoid numbers and ask voters a question about their own experience. In a debate with President Jimmy Carter in 1980 he turned straight to camera and advised viewers to ask themselves when they got a ballot in their hand: 'Are you better off today than you were four years ago?' Ps: Reagan won.

Author Biography

Professor Richard Rose, University of Strathclyde, has been writing about how people view politics for more than half a century in books such as ORDINARY PEOPLE IN PUBLIC POLICY (1989).