Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Voters aren’t convinced that cuts are imperative

This post is about opinion polls on the public finances.

Thank you both for reading on.

Last week I noted a couple of polls showing that more people thought the Tories could cut government spending without harming public services than thought Labour could. A bit of a blow for Labour, really.

Now another poll, by Ipsos MORI, heaps more bad news on Labour:
  • 62% agreed (27% disagreed) that “there are many public services that are a waste of money and can be cut”.
  • 79% agreed (13% disagreed) that “making public services more efficient can save enough money to help cut government spending, without damaging services the public receive”.
  • 40% thought that a Tory government “would be most effective in getting good value for the public money it spends” against 25% for Labour.

This confirms the picture from the other polls.

But all this – along with most political commentary on the matter – took for granted that reducing public spending is both desirable and necessary. The earlier YouGov poll did touch on this, though; it asked:

Many economists say that either taxes must rise sharply, or public spending must be cut sharply over the next few years in order to get Britain’s public finances in to balance. If a choice has to be made which would you favour?

12% favoured higher taxes, 31% lower public spending and 48% a mixture of the two.

The 48% is where Labour’s implicit position is: there are tax rises scheduled, as well as – if you look at the Budget small print rather than Gordon Brown’s witless evasions – cuts in spending. The Tories have been pitching strongly at the 31% of spending-cutters. The 12% who favour higher taxes would, you’d think, prefer the mix to the focus on spending cuts.

Back to the new Ipsos MORI poll.

People were given the statement: “There is a real need to cut spending on public services in order to pay off the very high national debt we now have”. Only 40% agree but 51% disagree. This suggests that promising painful action to get the deficit down quickly may not be worth as many votes as it is opinion columns.

A couple of caveats: the question leaves the timing of cuts ambiguous – people may think there’s no need to cut right now but that there will be in years to come. And the phrase “spending on public services” rather than just “public spending” might bias some people against agreeing to cuts.

But this suggests that ‘reduce the deficit’ isn’t many people’s top priority – especially in light of another question asked, which specifically began by stating: “Government borrowing is now at record levels, and will need to be reduced in future.” The options then given were “Government borrowing should be reduced, even if it means spending on key public services is cut”, picked by 29%, “Spending on public services should be maintained, even if it means increasing the income tax I pay”, picked by 38%, and “Things should be left as they are”, picked by 31%.

The latter two groups – totalling 69% – may be more receptive to Labour’s position that to that of the Tories, other things being equal.

So, while many people may think that the Tories would be more efficient at cutting non-vital spending, a good many more are very wary of cuts at all. This may be a patch of ground on which Labour could stand firm against a Tory ‘bigger cuts, faster cuts’ position.

But that could only possibly work if enough people are prepared to listen with at least partly open minds to a deeply unpopular government. Can Labour achieve that with Brown in charge? Or even at all?

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