Why the Tories are cheering Osborne's public sector job cull

The party believes that a smaller public sector will help it win a majority.

Those on the right who are fond of claiming that George Osborne's cuts are almost non-existent should look closely at the latest employment figures. They show that the coalition has cut 432,000 government jobs since the election (with an additional 196,000 reclassified as private sector posts), reducing the public sector workforce to its smallest level since 2001 (see graph). And Osborne isn't done yet. By 2017, according to the most recent OBR forecast, the government will have cut a further 298,000, bringing the total number lost to 730,000. In the words of the usually restrained Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, we are witnessing "a tectonic shift in the underlying structure of the labour market".

What explains this dramatic cull? Fiscal considerations, naturally, play their part. Borrowing for 2012-16 will be around £174.9bn higher than originally expected (see the Bank of England's latest summary of independent forecasts) and Osborne wrongly believes that slashing the state is the best way to reduce it. In an inversion of Keynes, he thinks that if you take care of the deficit, unemployment will take care of itself (joblessness has fallen in recent months, but forecasters expect it to rise to 2.7m next year).  But Osborne, who is both Chancellor and the Conservatives’ chief electoral strategist, also has political considerations in mind. While in opposition, the Tories frequently complained that Labour's "client state" made the election of a Conservative government impossible, so, in office, they have reduced it. As one senior Tory told the Spectator’s James Forsyth, "You create a bigger private sector, you create more Tories."

The polls certainly suggest as much. Data published last month by Ipsos MORI (see graph above) showed that while Labour enjoys a 35-point lead among public sector workers, it trails the Tories by a point among their private sector counterparts (Labour leads by 39 to 35 points among the voluntary sector). Logic says that if you reduce the former group and expand the latter (the OBR forecasts an extra 1.7 million private sector workers by 2017), the Tories will benefit. A smaller public sector means fewer people with a vested interest in high levels of state spending.

The Tories aren't naïve enough to think that they'll immediately benefit from putting Labour voters on the dole, rather they believe that, over time, a labour market in which the public sector plays a smaller role will smooth their path to a majority. Osborne may claim that his cuts are born of necessity, rather than ideology, but, as ever with the Chancellor, politics is on his mind too.

George Osborne plans to cut 730,000 public sector jobs by 2017. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.