Has Britain lost its illusions about politicians' ability to enact change, or are we still holding out for hope? Peter Kellner considers the issues in light of Osborne's Autumn Statement
What they need is a story. By 'they', I mean the leading politicians of all parties. By 'story', I mean a convincing analysis of Britain's economic problems and how to cure them. Just now, voters are not convinced any of the main players: Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat.
By margins of two-to-one, the public disapproves of the government's record and think it's managing the economy badly. George Osborne's rating as Chancellor has worsened sharply since the spring. Immediately after March's Budget, 34% thought he was doing a good job as Chancellor, while 40% thought he was doing badly. After last week's Autumn Statement, his figures are: good 24%, bad 49%
By three-to-one, Nick Clegg is thought to be doing badly (67%) rather than well (22%). His rating has been bumping along at around this level for nine months. His attempts to persuade voters that he is a moderating influence within the Coalition cut no ice with voters. His party seems unable to climb above the 10% or so voting support that it has endured for much of this year - less than half its general election figure last year.
As I discussed in my blog last week, Labour is unable to shrug off the widespread feeling that it got Britain into the current mess, and is therefore largely to blame for today's austerity. The party's response to last week's Autumn Statement has made no difference. Just 25% think Britain's economy would be doing better had Labour won last year's election; 37% think the economy would be doing worse. The remaining 38% say the economy would be much the same, or don't know.
This kind of across-the-board disapproval is unusual. Normally when one party is out of favour, another is riding high. Nick Clegg enjoyed stratospheric ratings during last year's election when voters had some doubts about David Cameron and more about Gordon Brown. Tony Blair was popular when four successive Tory leaders, from John Major to Michael Howard, were not.
Margaret Thatcher commanded great public respect, if not always liking, during much of the 1980s. And when she was out of favour at the same time as Labour's Michael Foot in the early '80s recession, then up popped a new party, the Social Democrats, who swept all before them for a few heady months.
There are two ways to view what is now happening, and I'm not sure which will prove to be right.
The optimistic interpretation is that we, collectively, have grown up. We have lost any illusions we once had that this party or that leader can solve Britain's problems. We accept that our politicians are ordinary human beings, with the same range of abilities, failings and temptations as the rest of us. We know that times are hard and the next few years will bring little joy. And because our expectations of our political system are so low, there is little danger than we shall be driven by disappointment to reject the system itself. Perhaps it is a symptom of our times that so many mugs and tea-shirts now carry the wartime slogan, "Keep calm and carry on". As in 1940 we hope eventually for better times, but meanwhile we are prepared to be patient and hunker down.
Now for the pessimistic interpretation. We do need hope, and want leaders and a vision we can believe in. History is littered with nasty examples of what happens to countries that face hard times without these. Already support for the main parties is fraying at the edges - witness the results of the European Parliament elections in 2009, after Britain had been hit by the financial tsunamis from the collapse of Lehman Brothers and Northern Rock. UKIP came second and the British National Party won two seats in Strasbourg. For the past few months, voting intention support for minor parties has averaged 14%, far more than in any general election in British history. There is a real danger that falling living standards, rising unemployment and worsening public services will trigger a crisis of legitimacy in Britain's political system.
Perhaps we won't know for another year or two which of these analyses proves to be nearer the mark. This week's discussions in Paris, Berlin and Brussels on the future of the eurozone could be decisive. What we can say is that there a huge gap in the political market for politicians who can tell a story that combines a lot of truth with at least a little hope - and that most of us will hope that this gap will eventually be filled from within Britain's political mainstream rather than outside it.