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11 March 2011

Who’s winning the blame game?

Most voters still blame Labour for the cuts but the tide is beginning to turn.

By George Eaton

Today’s YouGov poll makes good reading for Ed Miliband. The survey puts Labour on 45 per cent, 11 points ahead of the Tories and the party’s largest lead since the election-that-never-was. It’s also worth noting that Labour’s share of the vote is larger than the coalition’s combined share (43 per cent).

However, as Mike Smithson suggests, the topline figures aren’t always the best guide to the political state of play. One other key measure of public opinion is which party the voters blame most for the cuts.

As the graph below shows, the number who blame Labour has fallen (from 49 per cent to 40 per cent) over the last nine months, while the number who blame the coalition has risen (from 18 per cent to 27 per cent), though not by as much as one might expect. The number who blame both (surely the most logical response) has risen from 18 per cent to 22 per cent.

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Source: YouGov

What’s clear is that it will become increasingly difficult for the coalition to blame the cuts on Labour’s deficit. The boos that greeted Francis Maude’s recent attempt to do just that on Question Time were a visible sign of how public opinion has shifted. As David Blanchflower notes in his column this week, “blaming the previous Labour government for all things bad on the economic front is no longer working”.

It’s for this reason that some on the right are urging the coalition to develop an alternative justification for the cuts. Rather than simply arguing that the £156.3bn deficit makes the cuts “unavoidable”, ministers should argue that lower state spending is desirable in and of itself. For instance, a recent paper published by two Swedish economists, Andreas Bergh and Magnus Henrekson, found that an increase in government spending of 10 per cent of GDP reduces economic growth by between 0.5 per cent and 1 per cent on average.

At times, David Cameron has adopted this approach. When asked by a Fire Brigade worker last summer if funding would be restored once the deficit has been addressed, Cameron replied:

The direct answer to your question, should we cut things now and go back later and try and restore them later, [is] I think we should be trying to avoid that approach.

His insistence that we should try to “avoid that approach” reveals an ideological attachment to the small state and to low levels of public spending. But in general, Cameron’s fear of being branded an ideologue means that “Labour made us do this” will be the main refrain for some time to come.