From the TUC

Tracking public opinion on the cuts

13 Jan 2012, by in Politics

Regular readers will know that I have been following polling on spending cuts. YouGov regularly ask exactly the same set of questions. This allows us to track how public opinion is moving. While the precise wording of the question can make a big difference, especially in complex areas that are not the stuff of everyday conversation, tracking the same question can give a valuable insight into how opinion is moving as the same question bias will be present in every response.

I’ve not published any graphs for some time as public opinion was pretty constant for most of last year. People obsess over short term changes in voting intention, but these are often due to the natural variability in any survey or represent a short-term response to whatever is in the news. The truth is that not much happened on the opinion front for most of last year.

But there are some signs of a slight move. Unfortunately it goes in the wrong direction. But it’s not huge, and the government are still losing important parts of their argument, while still ahead on the need for cuts.People are still directly affected by the cuts, but slightly less than a few months ago.

Net having an impact.

This charts “Thinking about the way the government is cutting spending to reduce the government’s deficit, do you think this is having an impact on your own life, or not having an impact on your own life?”

It shows the net result – that is those saying “having an impact” less those who say “not having an impact”. (All the following charts plot net measures unless I say otherwise.) It goes back to the general election and includes one 2012 result.

It does not show a huge movement, but is consistent with a trend that we will see more strongly in other charts – a shift away from the government at the end of 2010 with a slight recovery since.

However every result shows a substantial majority who say that the cuts are having an impact on them.

The next chart plots a net fairness measure – those who think the cuts are being done fairly less those who think they are being done unfairly.

net fairness chart

This shows a much stronger shift in sentiment away from the government into 2011, and the same small recovery.

This charts whether the cuts are good or bad for the economy.

net good for the economy

This chart needs some caution. Many people will agree that the cuts are damaging in the short-term but will still say they are needed for long term economic success. This chart is very similar to the previous one.

This is probably the most significant chart. It is a net measure of whether people think the cuts are necessary. YouGov only started to ask this question at the start of 2011, so we do not know whether this measure showed a shift after the election (as the charts above all do.)

necessary or unnecessary

The government have a consistent lead on this. Economic news got worse in the closing months of the year, but this does not seem to have led to people moving away from the government. Rather it looks as if people think that bad economic news makes nasty medicine more necessary.

Looking at the detailed figures, the percentage thinking cuts were necessary has risen from 55 per cent to 60 per cent between last February and today, while those who think they are unnecessary has fallen from 33 per cent to 21 per cent.

Of course thinking some cuts are necessary is not the same as thinking all the cuts are necessary now. The next two charts provide some insight into this.

This chart – which also only dates from the start of 2011 – shows the proportion of the electorate who think the cuts are too deep.

too deep

and this one shows those who think the cuts are too quick.

too quick

These two graphs are not net measures. As respondents were given three choices, “too quick”, “about right” or “too slow” for the latter one, I’ve only plotted those choosing “too quick” or “too deep”.

While the trend is the same in both graphs, there is slightly more opposition to the speed of the cuts than their depth. Again we see some movement helpful to the government in both graphs.

I have a mental map of attitudes to cuts that tries to make sense of this data. On one side of the argument are those think the cuts are unnecessary and are opposed to them. On the other side are those fully supportive of rapid cuts and probably don’t care very much whether they are fair or not.

In the middle are a range of views including a lot of people who agree that the cuts are necessary but don’t like them very much. They worry that they are unfair and may well think they are too fast and/or too deep, but do not see an alternative. People do not always have consistent attitudes, and – hard as this may be for some I know – often do not think much about such issues.

Polls are simply one bit of evidence that must be considered in thinking through campaign strategies, though an important one. They show you the your starting point and your challenge, but not what you need to do or what you should aim to do.

I’ve also been round long enough to know that most people read polls to look for the evidence that confirms what they already think. So those who think that you can’t fight the worst cuts without supporting others will take comfort from these charts. But so will those who say that what is needed is clear leadership and political campaigning for an alternative.

Actually these charts ‘prove’ neither approach. That is not how anyone should approach this kind of polling.

Argument between those advocating different approaches can be interesting, though also energy absorbing. In practice though the task is to shift opinion away from the government’s current approach. Different tactics, issues and techniques will work with different audiences.Getting more people to think the cuts are too deep and too fast is progress just as much as getting more people to say they are unnecessary.

But whatever strategy people endorse this polling (and others) suggest to me a number of starting points:

  1. There is very wide acceptance that the deficit is a big problem. Unless you acknowledge this, people will not listen.
  2. It is hard to get people to see the deficit as anything other than a function of how much government spends.
  3. The important difference between the cyclical and structural deficits is not widely appreciated.
  4. Those (like me) who said opinion would move once people saw the effect of the cuts in their own lives do not have evidence for this in the last twelve months.

And of course good campaigns never accept your opponents’ framing of the issues, and work at the emotional and psychological levels, not through rarefied rationalist argument (though people quickly spot if you can’t win those too).


3 Responses to Tracking public opinion on the cuts

  1. John
    Jan 14th 2012, 12:30 am

    Thankyou for this article Nigel. For me I just wonder how the people are selected to partake in such surveys! Were they a ”fair” proportion of the total population including age, gender, part time, full time, in secure employment or not, unemployed, voluntary worker, student, conservative, labour, liberal, green, etc, etc. How reliable are the results ……?

  2. Chaminda
    Jan 14th 2012, 5:51 am

    The Eurozone crisis, I think, has shifted opinion slightly towards the government, on the basis that it isn’t as bad here as it is there (which, for a variety of reasons, it isn’t). Nobody on the anti-cuts side of the argument has got to grips at all with the Eurozone crisis’ impact on British politics and public opinion.

    I think it’s pretty clear that if any ‘alternative’ strategy to the cuts is to find any public currency, it will have to be pretty clear as to how much it would cut the deficit and by when. That probably means tax rises that can be easily quantified. And it then needs to have enough publicity to cut through. The vague argument about ‘growth’ is too fiscally intangible in itself to find favour as a serious policy alternative.

  3. Nigel Stanley

    Nigel Stanley
    Jan 14th 2012, 8:02 am

    @John Polling companies construct a sample that matches the population as best they can . This will include voting preference , social class , region, gender newspaper readership and other factors.

    It’S a well-established technique, and given the people who pay for polls generally want them to be accurate, the various companies compete to improve their methods.

    Of course it’s not foolproof. Every so often you get a rogue poll. This is why pollsters usually say something like “our polls will be accurate within 2% 95% of the time.”

    Different companies use slightly different techniques . YouGov tend to produce slightly better results for Labour than some other companies but it’s only a few percent I’m interested in broad trends not forensic meaurement.

    I therefore trust the sample, but pay a lot of attention to question design.