Monday, October 05, 2009

‘Just a trim, please. I said just a trim!’

The Tories should be worried about the opinion polls.

It’s not voting intentions: they’re maintaining a comfortable lead, although I don’t think a landslide is in the bag. No, their problem is people’s expectations of what they’d do in power as regards the public finances.

Polls from ICM, Populus and YouGov find that people tend to be more averse to higher taxes than to public spending cuts, and that when people are asked how to deal with the problem of the deficit, they want the main focus to be on spending cuts rather than tax rises.

But how big a problem do people think the deficit is? Because of the general consensus in the political and media class, pollsters haven’t looked at this very much. Ipsos MORI, though, have gone into that territory.

Only 24% agreed that “there is a real need to cut spending on public services in order to pay off the very high national debt we now have”, while 50% disagreed. Note the wording, though: “spending on public services” isn’t the same thing as “public spending”. The former is much cuddlier and less cuttable. Thus the same poll found 75% agreeing that “making public services more efficient can save enough money to help cut government spending, without damaging services the public receive”; just 9% disagreed.

While the wording is “help cut” rather than just “cut”, which makes it technically obviously true, this very strongly suggests that a lot of people expect efficiency savings to pretty much do the job when it comes to reducing the deficit. We can just cut some waste rather than actually harming the quality of services. They may be in for a nasty shock.

What’s more, going back to the YouGov poll, people strongly reject the Tory line on timing (although they may not know it’s the Tory line). Only 18% thought that “public spending should be cut sharply very soon in order to get the government’s finances in order as quickly as possible”, while 70% thought that “public spending will need to be cut in due course, but if it is done too soon, Britain’s economy would be damaged and unemployment would rise still further”.

If people’s expectations and preferences about cuts stay as they are, then by voting Tory they’ll find that they’ve gone to the barber’s for a trim but then been scalped – and for a price.

As Danny Finkelstein regularly points out, saving money by cutting public spending (rather than raising taxes) takes time and can even cost more in the short term. If the Tories can get their heads round this, and if they intend to attack the deficit as quickly as they can (i.e. well before the following election), that will mean higher taxes early on. If they haven’t primed the voters to accept that – as well as cuts in real services – they’ll be in trouble.

David Cameron reportedly wants a ‘doctor’s mandate’ – to do whatever may be necessary to sort things out. At present, he’s coasting towards a barber’s mandate. He may have to choose between deterring voters now and alienating them later.

(Of course, you could say that Labour would face much the same problems. However, what looks likelier is that Labour will face the problems that come from being in opposition...)

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