More bouquets than brickbats for the spending cuts

Peter KellnerPresident
May 16, 2011, 5:04 AM GMT+0

When George Osborne unveiled his emergency Budget in June, voters applauded his tough message and approval for the Coalition rose to its peak. Initial public reaction to this week’s spending decisions is, not surprisingly, less ecstatic, for we can begin to see how the cuts will affect our daily lives. But Osborne and his fellow ministers will be relieved that the electorate broadly approves of his overall strategy. Ecstasy has been replaced by acceptance, which is as much as the Government could reasonably have expected, and more than it might have feared.

Tory ministers in particular will be pleased – their party’s support remains (just) above 40%. Liberal Democrat leaders should be more queasy: their party’s support is down to just 10% - the lowest that we have recorded since YouGov started polling regularly in 2003.

The table below, from
our post-spending-review poll for the Sun, shows how the public views each of the main measures. Seven of the fourteen measures are backed by a majority of electors, while only two are opposed by most people.

George Osborne has announced the details of the government's spending review for the next four years. Below are some of the measures announced in the review, for each one please say if you support or oppose the measure.

Few will be surprised by the huge majorities who back the permanent levy on bank profits or the ending of the final salary pension scheme for MPs. But ministers can draw comfort from the large majorities that support the £500-a-week limit to income support, the end of child benefit for higher-rate taxpayers and the requirement for the BBC to take over the cost of running its World Service, even though it means less money for making radio and TV programmes. More than two-to-one also support, rather than oppose, the decisions to increase the pension contribution of public servants, and to freeze working tax credits for three years.

The public is more evenly divided on four other measures: increasing the state pension age, reducing the availability of legal aid, allowing higher-rate taxpayers over 60 to keep their bus passes and winter fuel allowance, and to cut the number of public sector jobs by almost half a million.

On only two measures does the public give Osborne a clear thumbs-down: his backing for more convicted criminals to be given community sentences rather than sent to prison and to allow rail fares to rise faster than inflation.

It’s not just that most individual measures are supported by the public; voters also accept their overall rationale – that Labour left Britain’s finances in a mess, and that big cuts are unavoidable. So far, the Government has won the big propaganda war with Labour – even though most people do not share ministers’ confidence that unemployment will fall next year.

However, the time when public verdict will matter most is not now, immediately after the spending cuts have been announced, but at the next election, when people will have experienced the impact of these cuts on their everyday lives.

Our poll suggests some warning signs. First, around six out of ten electors expect the quality of state schools, the NHS and the BBC to stay the same or improve. If their quality is thought in time to have deteriorated, the Tories and Lib Dems may suffer. Remember, in 1997 most voters thought the Thatcher and Major governments had let down health and education – even though their budgets rose consistently faster, in real terms, than the coalition now proposes for the next four years.

Second, there are signs that voters are growing more concerned about the fairness of the spending cuts. If this trend continues, the Coalition could be in trouble.

Third, the continued political success of the Coalition’s strategy depends on Labour still being blamed for the need for the cuts. If voters start blaming the Government more – especially if economic recovery falters – then the Conservatives and Lib Dems will be in trouble.

Fourth, voters tend to be ungrateful people. They resent it when governments make them suffer, but offer few thanks when things go well. So ministers should not crow too loudly that only minorities oppose higher rents for council tenants or higher pension payments for public sector workers. Unlike the supportive majorities, these minorities are likely to feel intensely about their plight. It would take a relatively modest number of them to switch from Tory or Lib Dem to Labour at the next election to change the Government.

On the other hand, if the economy does continue to grow, if the quality of frontline public services is maintained, and if Labour continues to be blamed more than the coalition for the cuts in benefits and increases in the cost of living, then Osborne will be able to boast a political achievement as dramatic as the spending cuts themselves. YouGov’s daily polls will follow each twist and turn in the war of the cuts and each skirmish in the battle to allocate blame.