The Coalition is winning the argument on the economy, so say the polls. Presumably this is great news for those Lib Dems who actively support the necessary and vigorous deficit cutting drive in the new politics.
There is a sense that people accept that the record deficit is too big; that spending more on our national debt than we do on our armed forces is neither sustainable, acceptable, nor in the least bit progressive; and that Labour spent the months leading up to the election making spending promises they could never keep.
People have heard the message about cuts and accepted them. In fact millions endorsed the cuts message in the election just four months ago. But are we actually seeing some double standards at work in the public reaction to the reality of the cuts? Almost as if the public are in favour of all the cuts, so long as it doesn’t affect them in any way, and only if it affects some invisible, expensive bogeyman, who is preferably far away.
Perhaps they can’t be blamed for this, after all MPs can be just as short-sighted. Perhaps the timing wasn’t helpful, but in the writetothem.com survey of MPs before the election it is noteworthy how every MP wants more, and not less public funding for their particular constituency hobbyhorse. Not then were we all in this together.
This missing notion of sacrifice was all too clear when Nick Robinson took to the Great British Public and asking them where the cuts should fall. One Grantham local replied: “cut benefits.”
Now okay, she’s caught on the hoof. But does this not demonstrate that she, like most people, isn’t prepared for what is about to happen. Or does it just demonstrate that some people are happy to see the very poorest in British society suffer as long as they don’t have to.
“Cut the amount of money that goes off the humanitarian aid,” the next Granthamer tells Robinson. So first we stuff the poorest in Britain, then the poorest in the World. Problem solved.
In fairness to them, the debate about government cuts still feels so abstract. Most people have never heard of DEFRA let alone feel a sense of loss when they hear 25% of it is likely to be culled. That this could lead to a practical abandonment of flood defence in rural areas at a time when our changing climate suggests we can least afford it barely registers, and won’t until we see more farmers out of work and our food prices rocket as a result.
We hear about efficiency savings and ‘back office cuts’ and think they seem harmless enough until we realise that this means Police spending more time on paperwork, not less, because we sacked the admin peeps.
So is the coalition government guilty of having not been more up front in its honeymoon period? Instead of the general language about there being ‘pain’ and ‘cuts’ and ‘austerity’, should day one have not been:
“Okay, one in four of every pound sent on public services is borrowed. Say goodbye to a quarter of every public service you use. If we cut any less, frankly we’ve performed a bloody miracle. Don’t like it? Blame Labour.”
Who by the way have looked the gift-horse that was the renewal opportunity of a leadership election firmly in the mouth and retreated to the safehouse of the myopia, spin obsessed, tribalistic ways they know so well. But it helps when no one has to call you on those ‘worse than Thatcher’ cuts you were going to make, but now don’t have to identify.
Perhaps both the reaction from the public, and Labour getting away with it, are both a result of the lack of tangibility about where the country is financially. Many fewer jobs have been lost than at the height of the eighties ‘corrections’. Taxes haven’t shot up, and in fact are coming down for millions of people.
The message of cuts at local level, the response to which is increasingly febrile, doesn’t sit well for many with the news that Council Taxes are to be frozen for one, maybe two years.
Especially when it will do so little to spur the economy and only inaugurate a new war against Town Halls: one in which the affluent Tory boroughs survive, and the poorer ones are either crushed or resort to lunatic solutions to survive.
The only solution is that Ministers have to be tougher, and franker, and bolder with the message. They say you get more done in your first hundred days in government then in the rest of the term. So the Coalition’s first big missed opportunity is not sealing the deal of what the cuts will mean with the public that will have to deal with all of its effects.