Election Countdown

Taxing questions

Do voters want higher taxes and more public spending, or the opposite? It’s all in how you phrase the question

March 04, 2024
Jeremy Hunt on last year’s spring budget. Image: PA Images / Alamy
Jeremy Hunt on last year’s spring budget. Image: PA Images / Alamy

The public verdict is emphatic. As Jeremy Hunt puts his final touches to this week’s budget, voters are clear that they want more spent on health, education and social benefits and are willing to pay higher taxes to fund these things.

The polls also tell us that Hunt’s top priority should be lower taxes, not higher spending.

Yes, you read that correctly. The polls suggest clear majorities for two contradictory views. Given that taxes and public spending will be central to the coming general election, as they always are, it’s worth working out what is going on.

Let’s start with recent figures from a poll commissioned by the Tony Blair Institute (TBI).

Not only is the margin decisive—more than three-to-one—it includes most Conservative voters, who back the higher tax-and-spend option by 55-23 per cent. Among Labour voters, the margin is 71-13 per cent. Polls seldom produce such clear-cut results on an issue at the heart of political debate. 

However, last week Savanta released a poll that seems to say the opposite. The margin this time is narrower, but still decisive—a 14-point lead for those favouring tax cuts. Moreover, the difference between Tory and Labour voters is less than might be expected: those who voted Conservative at the last election favour lower taxes by 58-37 per cent, Labour voters by 51-44 per cent.

How do we explain the difference between the Deltapoll and Savanta figures? Some may be tempted to shrug aside these findings as “lies, damned lies and opinion polls”. This temptation should be resisted. Better to seek a rational explanation. Can we find one? 

I believe we can. I reckon two separate things are going on. The first is illuminated by a different Deltapoll survey, this time for Channel Four News. As with its survey for TBI, it framed public spending in terms of health, education and social care. But this time it offered three policy options, not just two: 

Higher taxes, more spending: 34 per cent

Lower taxes, less spending: 14 per cent

Keep both at the same level as now: 41 per cent

Don’t know: 11 per cent

The most popular option this time is the status quo. Many people are fearful of cuts to schools, hospitals and care homes. They are not keen on paying higher taxes, but reluctantly prefer it when the alternative is cuts. Given the third option they jump at it. Among Tories, backing for tax-and-spend drops from 55 to 31 per cent when they can choose no change; among Labour voters the figure drops from 71 to 41 per cent.

So our first conclusion: a binary choice conceals a widespread preference for the status quo.

Secondly, the wording of the public services option makes a difference. The two Deltapoll questions listed specific services that millions of people rely on. Savanta just said “public services”. This of course includes police, prisons, defence, debt servicing, industrial policy, agricultural subsidies, road building, overseas aid and so on. Some things are more popular than others; and arguments about the efficiency of these services hover over them all.

Hence the way polling results vary. The Deltapoll questions focus on one aspect of what the government does, albeit hugely important and broadly popular. Savanta leaves people to interpret the term “public spending” as they wish. Some see a choice between decency and greed, others between waste and prudence.

A recent YouGov poll takes us a bit further. Like Savanta, it refers to “public services” without expanding on the term. Unlike Savanta, it offers three options:

Government taxes too little, doesn’t spend enough: 32 per cent

Government taxes too much and spends too much: 25 per cent

Gets the balance about right: 14 per cent

Don’t know: 28 per cent

Now the advantage lies with greater tax-and-spend—but not overwhelmingly; and both views are outnumbered by the 42 per cent who don’t take sides. (The large number of “don’t knows” stems from the option “gets the balance about right”. Many voters recoil from ticking a box that credits the government with getting anything right.)

 We can, then, see a hierarchy:

Give a binary choice and define public spending in terms of health, education and social care: more tax-and-spend is very popular (62-18 per cent).

Offer a three-way choice, defining public spending: now the status quo is the most popular option, but the rest display a clear preference (34-14 per cent) for more tax-and-spend.

A three-way choice, not defining public spending: a slight preference (32-25 per cent) for more tax-and-spend rather than less, but again the biggest number don’t take sides. 

A binary choice, not defining public spending: a majority (54-40 per cent) favour tax cuts. 

The big lesson to be drawn from this is that there is no simple way to describe public attitudes. Voters do not belong to two, or even three, solid blocks. Their views are more varied. Their responses depend on how the issue is framed. We need longer and more detailed surveys if we truly want to understand the public mood. 

To be fair, the Deltapoll, Savanta and YouGov surveys all asked a variety of questions. In particular, the extensive Deltapoll survey for TBI went on to ask the three-way question about each of a range of public services. The NHS is the only one in which an absolute majority (57 per cent) say they are willing to pay higher taxes for a better service. On each of the other seven services YouGov tested, from schools and welfare to defence and transport, the status quo is the most popular option.

Maybe one day we shall have an adult national conversation about the way the government taxes us and spends our money. And one day maybe politicians, campaigners and journalists will treat polls as sources of real insight, rather than crude weapons with which to fight their battles.

Well, we can hope…