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Losing the argument on cuts

David Cameron continues to preach to the converted.

At Left Foot Forward, the Fabian Society's Sunder Katwala offers a very interesting analysis of the debate over the government's deficit reduction and spending cuts programme. Katwala's principal claim is that the government has "lost ground over one of its central arguments" – that the cuts will "meet the fairness test".

Using YouGov polling which asked voters, between June and December 2010, whether they thought the spending cuts were being done fairly or unfairly, Katwala has produced a "fair cuts index" which appears to show pretty conclusively that popular attitudes have shifted decisively against the government, By mid-September, the index showed a net fairness rating of -21. And the Spending Review the following month failed to yield a "fairness bounce" for the government. There is a lesson to be drawn from this, he says:

[O]pponents of the government's agenda have been relatively effective – on the question of fairness – at persuading the middle ground of public opinion, while the government appears to have been much more guilty of preaching only to the already converted. The attitudes data presents an important blow to a government "narrative" that all reasonable people understand that the cuts are necessary and fair – and that the opposition is made up of a smattering of "denialists" and refuseniks who would always oppose everything they do. This is a popular argument with commentators who champion the government – but it does not seem to be persuading many people beyond the core 30 per cent of the electorate who have always been satisfied with the government's strategy. The content and tone of the government's "there is no alternative" argument risks patronising a considerable swath of opinion, which was at least open to the government's argument six months ago.

If his appearance this morning on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show is anything to go by, that's a lesson that David Cameron has yet to learn – he was deploying "Tina" for all it was worth. Marr in fact raised the issue of fairness, pointing out that VAT, which the government has raised to 20 per cent, is a regressive tax.

Cameron played a dead bat and dodged the question: "You have to ask . . . what if we weren't dealing with the deficit." As if the government had no alternative to raising VAT. Indeed, he stuck to the Tories' pre-election playbook throughout the interview. So there were the ritual invocations of "Labour's job tax", numerous reminders of the "vast pit of debt [the government was] left" and the "mess" the coalition inherited in May.

He even conjured the spectres of Ireland and Greece, though, as David Blanchflower points out in the current issue of the New Statesman, "What has happened in Greece and Ireland is largely irrelevant." And there was barely a word about "fairness".

Katwala ends his piece by observing that the government is coming under pressure from the "anti-egalitarian right" to abandon talk of fairness altogether:

Supporters of the government from the anti-egalitarian right – voiced by Policy Exchange and ConservativeHome – is that the coalition government made a mistake in making the "fairness" claim for its deficit reduction programme, and an even bigger one in seeming to accept distributional analysis as an important part of "fairness". The argument is that the government should drop the fairness claim – or at least reframe it, rejecting distributional analysis in favour of a different argument about who deserves what. The housing benefit argument is one area where the government is trying to do this.

Whether reframing the debate as one of desert will be a more effective strategy for the government remains to be seen. But this is a useful reminder to those on the egalitarian left that considerations of desert and reciprocity have been as important a part of the debate about "fairness" in this country as have questions about redistribution.