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The Tories are crowing over their opinion poll lead and claiming majority support for cuts. But the left shouldn’t believe the hype, argues Adrian Cousins.

Poor poll results are cited to explain why the Labour leadership has abandoned its opposition to cuts, but the weak performance of Labour’s front bench doesn’t mean the government is in a strong position.

A recent set of poll results on attitudes to the cuts have been seen as a cause for gloom by some. A regular YouGov poll[1] asks the question “Thinking about the way the government is cutting spending to reduce the government’s deficit, do you think this is…necessary or unnecessary”.

The most recent results show that 60 per cent of people accept that cuts are necessary, with 26 per cent saying they are unnecessary and 14 per cent unsure (almost identical to the results for this time last year).

In some ways this isn’t surprising. The need for cuts to reduce the deficit is accepted by the three main parties and has become a common sense argument, with analogies with credit card bills being deployed to illustrate the ‘obvious’ need to cut back.

What is surprising however is that despite the fact that the three main parties accept the case for cuts and have been arguing so since before the election, forty per cent of the electorate remain unconvinced. This is over twenty million people. Its impossible to tell from the poll question how many of those who accept cuts are necessary think that they should be targeted at the wealthier sections of society. But according to a Harris poll conducted in May 2010[2] over three quarters believe that the rich should contribute more than the less well off, so its highly likely that the overwhelming majority would like to see the rich shoulder the burden.

That probably explains why less than a third (29%) believe that the cuts are being done fairly – as Figure 1 [a] shows. In other words they don’t accept that those at the bottom of society should pay for a crisis caused by those at the top.

What the polls show therefore is that the central argument of the anti-cuts movement has a resonance with the majority of the population.

Most people say that the cuts are are bad for the economy – Figure 1 [b], are too deep – Figure 1 [c] and being made too quickly - Figure 1 [d]. In other words they hold an opinion that was until recently argued by the Labour leadership.

 


Figure 1: Thinking about the way the government is cutting spending to reduce the government’s deficit, do you think this is…

Source: YouGov Economy Tracker January 22-23:
cdn.yougov.com/cumulus_uploads/document/97usqv1z41/YG-Archives-Trackers-Economy-240112.pdf

 

What is plain from the polls is that for a vast swathe of the population there is no party within parliament that represents their opinion on the cuts.

Although over one fifth blame the Tories for the current spending cuts, 39 per cent blame Labour. This doesn’t allow us to differentiate between those who think Labour is to blame for overspending on health and education and those who (correctly) blame Labour for failing to effectively regulate the banks that caused the crisis. But data from the British Social Attitudes Survey gives us a clue to the balance between these two attitudes to spending.

When asked about spending on health, education and social benefits the survey revealed that 87 per cent supported either leaving taxation and spending at current levels (56%) or increasing both (30%). Only a tiny minority (9%) supported cutting spending (Figure 2).

 

Figure 2: Attitudes towards taxation and spending

Source: British Social Attitudes Survey 28, pg 36.
Note: Figures are for England, figures for Scotland show higher percentage in favour of increased spending.

 

Its unlikely therefore that a majority of those who blame Labour do so because they believe that it has overspent on luxuries such as health and education.

A weak, unpopular and nasty government

This is a weak and unpopular Coalition. It is effectively a Tory government elected to power with the votes of only 23% of the electorate. It is this that explains its attacks on migrants and the unemployed.

The benefit cap will not assist in reducing the deficit, in fact it could actually cost the government money (as this letter from the office of Eric Pickles argues). Its a cynical attempt to win public support by attacking a minority whilst conducting unpopular attacks on the majority. But as this week’s defeats for Cameron in the House of Lords shows it could in fact increase strains within the coalition.

The weakness of the current administration is underlined by the ongoing political dissent over the NHS bill (with Tory Steven Dorrell attacking Lansley’s reforms) and the unprecedented rate of back bench rebellion – the highest for any government since the second world war (Figure 3).

 

Figure 3: Percentage of divisions to see rebellion by government backbenchers, first sessions, 1945-2010.

Figure 4: Percentage of divisions to see rebellion by government backbenchers, first sessions, 1945-2010.

Source: Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart: A coalition with wobbly wings: Backbench dissent since May 2010: http://www.revolts.co.uk/Wobbly%20Wings.pdf

 

The underlying fragility of the Coalition takes place against the background of the deepest cut in household incomes since 1974 – 1977 (Figure 4). This April will see further large attacks on incomes with £2.5bn in additional cuts to tax credits that will disproportionately hit low to middle income households (who receive 56% of tax credits)[3].

No government since the second world war has been able to sustain cuts in living standards of this magnitude without massive opposition outside parliament, first bringing down the Heath government in 1974 and then the Callaghan government in 1979.

 

Figure 4: Projected real median net household incomes

Reproduced from IFS November 2011: http://www.ifs.org.uk/budgets/as2011/tax_benefits_as11.pdf
Sources: Department for Work and Pensions’ HBAI series; IFS calculations and projections using Family Resources Survey

 

Mobilising the anti-cuts millions

We cannot rely on Labour to oppose the cuts – they cannot be fought by accepting the logic of austerity. But If the anti-cuts movement can mobilise a fraction of the millions who are opposed to the cuts the cracks and tensions within the Coalition will intensify and the confidence of those at the sharp end will grow.

That’s why the Coalition of Resistance seeks to build broadest mass campaign against the cuts, and why all those who want to turn the tide of opinion against austerity should join with us in making it happen.

 

Notes

[1] YouGov Economy Tracker: cdn.yougov.com/cumulus_uploads/document/97usqv1z41/YG-Archives-Trackers-Economy-240112.pdf
[2] Harris Poll May 2010: www.harrisinteractive.com/vault/HI-FinancialTimes-HarrisPoll-2010-07-14.pdf
[3] Resolution Foundation: http://www.resolutionfoundation.org/us/downloads/2012-tax-changes/PERSONAL_ALLOWANCE.pdf

From the Coalition of Resistance site

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