Voters will be more concerned about the state of the economy than immigration at the next election, top polling guru Sir John Curtice has said.
Sir John said Britons are in a state of “deep deep economic pessimism” as he warned Rishi Sunak’s government – who have spent the past week consumed by the new Rwanda bill – was focusing on the wrong issue to woe voters.
He added: “The economy and the cost of living does matter in the electoral contest to come and is probably going to end up more important – and influencing more voters – than the issue of immigration, on which the government has focused during the course of the last week”.
Mr Sunak’s government has been beset by internal fighting about the Rwanda bill, which aims to send asylum seekers to the east-African country rather than allow them to settle in the UK.
The prime minister called a press conference on Thursday to plead with the House of Lords to back his Rwanda plan, insisting that it was a “national priority”.
But, speaking at a briefing for charity Citizens Advice, Sir John said the public was feeling very pessimistic about their finances and the state of the economy, with polling indicating that this was playing a factor in whether people would change their votes.
Charity Citizens Advice revealed on Thursday that the number of people they helped with crisis support in 2023 has almost tripled since 2019 to reach more than 220,000. This includes referring people for help at a food bank and providing emergency financial support.
Sir John, a professor of politics at Strathclyde University, added: “In no previous parliament have the public in general been as consistently and deeply pessimistic about the state of the economy”.
According to the latest YouGov polling, the Tories are tailing Labour by 27 points in the polls.
Reflecting on how the Conservatives had ended up in this position, Sir John pointed to two events that significantly ate into the public’s support for the party. Firstly, the partygate revelations under Boris Johnson’s government and secondly Liz Truss’s “mini budget”, which caused the pound to fall sharply and spiked morgage rates.
This second event was “one that put the state of the economy front and centre” and has given Labour the ammunition needed to “pin the tail on the donkey of Liz Truss, and use that to say ‘this is the reason why the economy is doing so badly”, Sir John said.
He also warned that “tax cuts will not work in the way that the government are hoping”, with recent polls showing that the electorate were more concerned about the state of public services than the level of taxation.
In 2023, Citizens Advice helped a record number of people who couldn’t afford to top up their prepayment meters, meaning they were living without power in their homes. In December last year, 38,111 people were in this situation. The number of people needing help with homelessness was at its highest point in eight years, at nearly 70,000 people.
Essential living costs, like rising rents and food prices, are also driving debt for those who came to charity needing help. Before the pandemic, they had seen more social tenants than private renters coming to them for help but this has now reversed.
The charity predicted that January 2024 would see record need, before things get a bit better in Spring with another cost of living payment and a rise in the National Minimum Wage.
Sir John said on Thursday that even voters who are better off financially will be concerned about others who aren’t coping. He said: “When it comes to the way in which voters vote, although the personal matters, voters often look out through the prism more generally of how the economy is operating.”
He said it will not just be people who come to Citzens Advice for help who will be concerned about the state of the economy, adding that Waitrose shoppers have been hit by food inflation for example. He gave the example of parents who may own their own home, but who have a son or daughter who is struggling to pay their rent or mortgage.
“People’s broader familial networks may well be much more in touch with these issues,” he said.
He also warned that the next election could see low voter turnout because “the difference between the parties is quite narrow”. He said voters found the parties “extremely boring” and viewed all three main party leaders as “as dull as dishwater”.
This paired with polling that consistently shows a significant Labour lead would keep people at home, he said.
Claire Moriarty, head of Citizens Advice, said: “We have seen a broadening of need, but also what we’ve seen is a real deepning of need. The number of people who have needed to come back for more help... we are just seeing people who are now trapped into these much more difficult positions.”
She said that housing costs, energy prices, debt and falling real incomes needed to be “at the heart of what is on all the political parties agendas as they head into the election year.”