Tracking opinion on spending cuts
Every so often I look at the YouGov series on economic policy commissioned by the Sun. The great advantage of this is that they keep asking the same questions so that you can track how public opinion has moved since the general election. I would have chosen a slightly different set of questions, but these are good polling questions asked by a competent pollster.
This first chart measures whether the public think that the cuts have been made fairly or unfairly. It is a net measure. In other words I have taken those who think the cuts have been done unfairly away from those that think they have been done fairly. Other than a few polls shortly after the 2010 general election, there is a consistent substantial majority who think the cuts have been done unfairly. However the trend has been slightly in the government’s favour. I have no evidence for this, but my sense is that this may be because benefit cuts have been the main topic of media coverage. They are more popular than cuts to services such as the NHS.
The next chart tracks whether people think the cuts are necessary or unncessary. There is consistently positive support for this. (The red line in this and other chart plots a rolling ten data point mean). Note that the data for this chart starts in February 2011 rather than straight after the election.
The next chart tracks those who think the cuts are too deep versus those who think they are about right or too shallow. I’ve done this with a net figure calculated by first adding those who think the cuts are about right or too shallow and subtracting those who think they are too deep from this total.It shows a move towards the government, but from a strong majority thinking the cuts are too deep to only a small majority thinking they are at the right level.
This chart is similar to the one above, but looks at those who think the cuts have been done too quickly versus those who think that they have been done at the right pace or too slowly. Again this is presented so the higher on the graph the closer people are to the government’s position. While the movement is towards the government, this is from a position of a significant majority thinking the cuts are being done too quickly to a very small majority on the government’s side.
There is no doubt that public opinion on the cuts has moved somewhat in the government’s direction. But ministers would be wrong to celebrate. A poll that the TUC commissioned from YouGov at the turn of the year showed that voters do not back plans for a permanently smaller state.
More than half (56 per cent) agree with the statement “As the economy grows I want to see most or all of the services that have been cut restored” compared to three in ten (29 per cent) who back “As the economy grows I want to see most or all of the cuts retained.” Even 35 per cent of Conservative voters want to restore services.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) says that 60 per cent of cuts in public services have yet to happen, but voters do not appreciate the scale of the cuts to come. YouGov asked people to say what proportion of cuts have already been implemented. Three in five voters (59 per cent) underestimate the scale of the cuts to come.
In any case the deficit is no longer the topic that dominates political debate about the economy. The living standards crisis is now the big issue. While the return of growth might be thought to be good news for the government, it has not shifted polling figures in the way that ministers might hope. The TUC poll provides some possible clues. If people think that growth has returned, but they are failing to share in it, they are unlikely to reward the government.
It is also interesting to see how “noisy” the polls are when plotted in this way with many data points. There are certainly trends that can be identified, but also polls quite close to each other can show a strong movement in one direction, only for the next to go back to trend.
Some of this will be due to the natural variation in polls (admittedly exaggerated by combining for and against positions to get net figures) and some due to genuine short-term movements in opinion. But they do show the dangers of generalising from a single poll.