Consumer confidence is perilously low in the UK.
Consumers expect 2020 to a be rough year for their own finances and the economy in general. Our latest consumer sentiment tracker (as reported in The Optimism Index) has net economic confidence (that is, the percentage of consumers expecting the economy to improve over the next 12 months minus the percentage that expect it to get worse) at -33%. The equivalent figure for consumers’ perceptions of their own household finances is -15%. Why then, is this General Election campaign not relentlessly focussed on economic growth?
Consumers have been persistently negative about the wider economy and their own finances since our monthly sentiment tracker began in January 2018, but before then the last time consumers were in such an obviously recessionary mindset was during – surprise, surprise – the recession. Then, the mood matched the economic scenery, and consumers’ concerns were reflected in the politics of the day.
During the downturn, brands and markets adapted to a recessionary consumer mindsets too. For some businesses it became all about price – for example, middle market supermarkets losing share to discounters like Lidl and Aldi. But in other places – even in the same sectors – more nuanced reactions were required; Waitrose not only rode out but prospered during the downturn because the launch of its Essentials range allowed it to communicate both quality and value – essential for those wealthy consumers who were affected by the downturn more in their outlook than their wallet.
In elections, the economy became the defining issue and when Labour lost trust on the economy they also lost power. General elections in 2010 and 2015 were defined by parties’ economic plans.
Consumers are currently every bit as concerned about the economy as they were in 2010, and more so than they were in 2015. But GDP growth, national debt, jobs and productivity are not a key part of the debate. In one sense, all issues are tangentially related to the economy – but these economy-adjacent issues get pulled in different directions:
• Brexit – the putative economic implications of Brexit has been discussed, debated, published and rubbished quite thoroughly (and repetitively) since 2016. Parties are instead focussing on process and timetable (e.g. leaving in January, renegotiation, second referendum and revocation)
• Spending plans – According to the IFS, neither the Labour or Conservative manifestos are credible. Neither party seems unduly concerned by this – a marked change from 2010 and 2015 elections when evidence of financial credibility was key
• Austerity – this has been an issue, but is not a divide in the same way as previous elections. With a new PM that hasn’t spent much of the last decade in parliament, and the Conservatives preaching renewal and prosperity rather than probity and reserve the incumbents are deflecting these attacks – very different to 2017
• Terror/safety – the London Bridge terror attack last week provided a point of remarkable and unfortunate symmetry with the 2017 campaign. In that election, however, the debate unexpectedly became about austerity, funding cuts and police numbers – broadly economic issues. This time, the aftermath has been dominated by discussions of rehabilitation, sentencing and early release.
What does this tell us?
Fundamentally, it confirms that the concerns that enabled the 2016 referendum result hold true today: consumers are prepared to risk an economic hit to get the version of the future they want. Instead of economics, values will dictate the result. Where previous elections may have been the result of voters weighing up the economic consequences – ‘How much will this cost me?’ – the central consideration this time is a more intractable one: ‘What kind of future do I want?’. As we report in our Optimism Index tracker, indicators like Autonomy, Social Trust, Anxiety and Optimism itself are increasingly invaluable barometers of public opinion and consumer behaviour.
Time is running out for the economy to rear its head in this campaign but the fundamental issues remain. Growth is stagnant and consumers expect the worst. An economic event in 2020 – Brexit related or not – will see the issue hurtle back on to the agenda. At that point, both politicians and brands will need to recalibrate.