Attitudes to the spending cuts

Anthony WellsHead of European Political and Social Research
May 16, 2011, 2:58 AM GMT+0

Public attitudes to the spending cuts remain the defining feature in the current political landscape. Carrying them out is the biggest challenge for the Government, how to respond to them the biggest question for Labour. Ever since the summer we've been carrying out fortnightly trackers, asking how British people see the cuts to public services and who people hold responsible for them.

The first point to make is that Labour's criticisms of the cuts have largely struck home. In terms of whether they are fair, a solid majority now perceive the cuts as unfair. The Government's initial battle to try and portray their cuts as being done in a fair matter seems to have been lost. Immediately after the emergency budget in June, 45% thought the cuts were being done fairly. In this week's poll, 62% thought they were being done unfairly. This includes 25% of Conservative supporters and over half (53%) of remaining Liberal Democrat voters.

50% of British people also think the cuts are too deep, compared to only 27% who think they are about right (6% would prefer even deeper cuts). 58% think they are being done too quickly, compared to 26% who think the speed is about right (and 5% who think they should be even faster). Again, these doubts are not confined to opposition supporters - amongst Conservatives, 20% think the cuts are too deep, 23% too quick. Amongst Liberal Democrat supporters 39% think they are too deep, 50% too fast.

Perhaps most damaging is the growing perception that the cuts are not even good for the economy. Only 34% of people think they are good for the economy, with a majority 51%, thinking they are bad. This is a relatively recent change. By last Autumn, people were tending to think the cuts were unfair, but did at least think they were for the good of the economy. Only from January has public opinion swung towards the position that the cuts are bad for the economy.

BUT - despite the perception that the cuts are unfair, too fast, too deep and not good for the economy, there is some good news for the Government too. Firstly, a majority of the public continues to think that the cuts are required. 55% of people think the cuts are necessary, with only 33% saying they are unnecessary. While between a fifth and a quarter of the Conservative party's own supporters have doubts about the fairness, speed or depth of cuts, they are almost universal in thinking they are necessary. Lib Dem supporters think the cuts are necessary by 71% to 18%.

While the proportion of people blaming the Government for the cuts is growing, there is also still a substantial body of opinion that puts more blame on Labour than the Coalition for the cuts. In the latest poll, 25% of people blamed the Coalition most for the cuts, 41% the last Labour government with 24% blaming them both. Adding those who blame one party more to those who blame them both, this means that in total 49% blame the Coalition, but 66% blame Labour.

Taking a longer term view, this suggests that while the proportion of people blaming the coalition for the cuts has grown steadily since the election (from 36% in June, to around 42% in September to around 49% now), there has not been any corresponding drop in the proportion of people thinking that it is also Labour's fault. In June 2010 67% blamed Labour, by September it was around 65-66%, the latest results are 65%. The Government may not be stopping a growing proportion of people blaming them, but does seem to be making sure that Labour continue to share the blame.

Finally, despite people seeming to agree with Labour's criticisms of the cuts as being too unfair, too fast and too deep, it doesn't mean they would necessarily trust Labour more on the issue. Asked who they would trust to make the right decisions on the deficit, 38% trust the Coalition more, compared to 29% who would trust Labour more. 22% don't trust either.

In summary, it would seem people dislike the medicine in many different ways and aren't sure it's good for us... but equally they still think it's necessary to take it and would trust the present Government more to deliver it than the alternative.