But poor ratings for the government are not yet disastrousby Peter Kellner / September 19, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
After two years in which millions of voters gave the government the benefit of the doubt, opinion is now hardening against George Osborne’s economic policies. This can be seen from YouGov tracking data, and a new survey conducted exclusively for Prospect. There have been three stages to the evolution of the public mood. At first, ministers could deliver a simple message. Labour had screwed up. We, the coalition, have to take painful decisions, but they are not our fault. Britain will emerge stronger than before. After a few months, when that enthusiasm had worn off, the coalition entered stage two, which lasted for well over a year, until this spring’s Budget. The figures settled down, with around 35 per cent thinking their policies were good for the economy, and around 47 per cent saying bad. These were tolerable results for the government. However, in the past six months the numbers have slipped further. In early September they reached their lowest yet, with 29 per cent saying good and 53 per cent bad. The Conservatives’ hopes of winning the next election outright depend on turning these numbers round. To delve behind this observation, this month’s YouGov/Prospect survey has explored attitudes to the economy. First we asked whether government policies on taxes and public spending have been good or bad, first for Britain as a whole, and second for themselves and their families. There is a marked difference—30 per cent say the policies have been good for Britain, but only 11 per cent think they and their families have benefited. The difference in the “bad” figures is much smaller: Britain, 44 per cent; own family, 51 per cent. Rather, a sizeable minority (28 per cent) say the measures have not made much difference to them. This means that almost 40 per cent say they have not (yet) been adversely affected by the tax increases and spending cuts—good news for the government. The trouble for George Osborne is that if this 40 per cent starts to contract, his party could be in deeper trouble. But what about that half of the nation that says it has suffered? In what ways? We listed some of their possible grumbles and asked them to tick all that applied. Top, named by 56 per cent of the sufferers, is higher VAT. Next, on 50 per cent, comes “the very low interest rates that have been bad for my/our savings/pension.” Among the over-60s, this comes top, ticked by 69 per cent. This shows that low interest rates have a mixed impact—good for mortgage-payers and those businesses that are able to borrow the money they need to expand, but bad for anyone whose savings exceed their debts. Perhaps the most striking finding is that only 33 per cent of sufferers (and therefore 17 per cent of the public) say they have been hit by “specific public services that I/we use [that] have been closed down or cut back.” Government critics say that only one-fifth of planned cuts have fed through to front-line service cuts: four-fifths have yet to come. If this, or anything like it, turns out to be true, then the numbers complaining about government policies will grow. But if ministers obey David Cameron’s early injunction to maintain frontline services and seek cuts elsewhere, then public sector provision may be the dog that doesn’t bark at the next election. Finally, we asked people whether they wanted ministers to stick with Plan A, or switch to the kind of Plan B that Labour proposes. Actually, we did not mention either plans or parties; rather, we asked people to choose between two broad statements: “There are deep-seated problems with government finances that have to be tackled. The medicine may be unpleasant, but we have to take it for Britain’s economy to grow stronger in the long-term. This is the wrong time to change course”: 36 per cent agreed. “The medicine isn’t working. The government is making things worse by raising taxes and cutting spending too far, too fast. The time has come to change course. In the short term, boosting the economy matters more than reducing borrowing”: 49 per cent agreed. Not sure: 15 per cent. These are poor figures for the government, but not disastrous. As might be expected, most Tory voters support the first option, most Labour voters, the second. Liberal Democrats (like their MPs as a whole) are evenly divided. One noteworthy group consists of those who think the government’s policies are good for Britain but bad for them and their families. They consist of 9 per cent of Britain’s adults—around 4m people. Two-thirds of them are Tories and they tend to be retired or close to retirement. Three-quarters of them think ministers should stick with Plan A. They are prepared to pay a personal price to help Britain pull through. David Cameron must hope that they continue to do so. If they come to the conclusion that their pain will not result in national gain, then the Tories really will be sunk.