How unpopular are the cuts now?

Voters think the cuts are unfair and bad for the economy. But they still blame Labour.

Tomorrow's anti-cuts demonstration in London, which is likely to be the largest protest in the capital since the anti-war march in 2003, is an important political moment. George Osborne won't be blown off course by one demonstration, but the march, provided it's peaceful, should reinforce the sense that the government is losing the argument.

So, ahead of tomorrow's demonstration, here's a summary of where the public stands on the cuts.

The public thinks the cuts are unfair

Despite Osborne's attempts to present his programme as "progressive", the government lost the fairness argument almost immediately. In June, 37 per cent thought the cuts were fair and 33 per cent thought they weren't.

But by September, just 30 per cent thought they were fair and 50 per cent thought they were unfair. Now, only 26 per cent think the cuts are fair and 60 per cent think they are unfair.

The voters are, of course, entirely right to think that the cuts are unfair. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies has repeatedly demonstrated, the coalition's austerity measures hit the poorest hardest.


Source: YouGov

And bad for the economy

It's a similar story on the economy. At the time of Osborne's emergency Budget in June, 47 per cent thought the cuts would be good for the economy and 30 per cent thought they would be bad. By September, public opinion had switched sides and hasn't changed since. Following January's VAT rise and the grim news that the economy shrank by 0.6 per cent in the final quarter of 2010, the gap widened significantly.

For now, a toxic combination of lower growth, higher inflation and higher unemployment means the coalition has little hope of winning this argument.


Source: YouGov

But they still think (some) cuts are necessary

YouGov has only recently started asking its panel if they think the cuts are necessary and the results are revealing. The majority of voters – 55 per cent – believe that the cuts are necessary, against 32 per cent who they think they are unnecessary.

Unfortunately for the coalition, this shouldn't be interpreted as an endorsement of their approach. Polling by YouGov also shows that the public opposes both the speed and the scale of the cuts. The most recent poll (20-21 March) found that 49 per cent think the cuts are too deep (6 per cent think they are too shallow and 27 per cent think they are "about right") and that 57 per cent think they are too fast (5 per cent think they are too slow and 27 per cent think they are "about right).

So while it's clear that the public, like Labour, agrees that some cuts are necessary to reduce Britain's £146bn deficit, people also believe that the coalition is going "too far and too fast".


Source: YouGov

And they still blame Labour

Too fast, too steep, unfair and bad for the economy. It might look like the coalition has lost the argument on every front. But Osborne continues to derive comfort from the fact that more people blame Labour for the cuts than the government.


Source: YouGov

The most recent YouGov poll showed that 38 per cent blame Labour, 23 per cent blame the coalition and 26 per cent blame both (surely the most sensible answer). Labour has made up some ground since June, when 49 per cent blamed them for the cuts, and public opinion is moving in the right direction for it.

But when Ed Balls recently admitted that his party was "behind on the argument on the deficit" this was undoubtedly the rating he had in mind. Labour might have led in every voting intention poll since January, but so long as voters continue to blame Labour, rather than the coalition, for the cuts, the Tories have every reason to remain hopeful.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How the Brexit referendum has infantilised British politics

Politicians like Boris are not characters in a fantasy show. If they aspire to high office then they must be held to high standards. 

Ancient Greece is the cradle of modern Europe.  From its primordial soup emerged so much of our culture, our language and our politics. Of the three, it seems to be the politics that has made the least progress over the centuries. In fact, if you dropped an Athenian into the middle of politics in the UK today, they would find themselves right at home. This is not because of the direct democracy, the demagogues or the xenophobia, though all are worryingly familiar, but because of the style of the debate itself.

To understand politics in ancient Greece you have to grasp that they had no concept of ‘the truth’. This is not to say that they were liars, simply that the framework by which we judge credibility was not one they would have recognised. The myths and legends that dominated their discourse were neither thought of as being ‘true’ or ‘made-up’, they simply were, and the fact of their being known allowed them to be used as reference points for debate and argument.

Modern politics seems to be sliding back towards this infant state, and nothing embodies this more than the childish slanging match that passes for an EU referendum debate. In the past six years the UK has had three great exercises of direct democracy and it is safe to say none of the campaigns have added a great deal to sum of human enlightenment. Who remembers the claims that babies would die as a result of the special voting machines needed to conduct AV elections? But the EU referendum has taken this to new extremes. The In campaign are executing what is a fairly predictable strategy, the kind of thing that is normal fare in politics these days. Dossiers of doomsday scenarios. Experts wheeled out. Statistics embellished to dazzle the public. One can question the exact accuracy, but at least you feel they operate within certain parameters of veracity.

What is happening on the Out side, in contrast, is the collective nervous breakdown of a large section of the political establishment. Just this week we have had Penny Mordaunt, a government minister, flat-out denying the UK’s right to veto new accessions to the EU. We have seen the fiercely independent Institute for Fiscal Studies denounced as a propaganda arm for Brussels. Most bizarrely, Boris Johnson even tried to claim that the EU had banned bananas from being sold in bunches larger than three, something that nobody who has actually visited a shop in the UK could possibly believe. These kind of claims stretch our political discourse way beyond the crudely drawn boundaries of factual accuracy that normally constrain what politicians can do and say. Surely the people peddling these myths can never be taken seriously again?

But they will. You just watch as Johnson, Mordaunt and the rest slide effortlessly back into public life. Instead of being ridiculed for their unhinged statements, they will be rewarded with plush offices and ministerial cars. Journalists will continue to hang on every word they say. Their views will be published in newspapers, their faces will flit ceaselessly across our TV screens. Johnson is even touted as a plausible future leader of our country, possibly before the year is out. A man who over his meandering career seems to have held every possible opinion on any topic you care to name. Or rather, perhaps it is more accurate to say that the character we call Boris has no opinions at all, simply interests. The public, who have scant regard for a political class they believe to be untrustworthy, seem to have taken a shine to a man who is perhaps the most fundamentally dishonest of Westminster’s denizens.

What does all this say about the state of our politics? If it is true that we are seeing the advent of ‘post-truth’ politics, as some have argued, then it has grown out of the corrosive relationship between politicians and the public. It is both a great irony and a great tragedy that the very fact that people distrust all politicians is what has permitted the most opportunistic to peddle more and more outlandish claims. Political discourse has ceased to be a rational debate with agreed parameters and, like the ancient Greeks, more resembles a series of competing myths. Claims are assessed not by their accuracy but by their place in the grand narrative which is politics.

But the truth matters. For the ancients it was the historian Thucydides who shifted the dial decisively in favour of fact over fiction. In writing his Histories he decided that he wanted to know what actually happened, not just what made a good story. In a similar vein British politics needs to take a step back towards the real world. Broadcasters launching fact-checkers are a good start, but we need to up the level of scrutiny on political claims and those who make them. At times it feels like the press operate as a kind of counterweight to Game of Thrones author George RR Martin, going easy on much-loved characters for fear of upsetting the viewers.

But politicians like Boris are not characters in a fantasy show. If they aspire to high office then they must be held to high standards. If politics is the art of the possible, then political discourse is the art of saying what you can get away with. Until there are consequences for the worst offenders, the age of post-truth politics will continue suck the life from our public debate.