Mark Wallace, of the Taxpayers Alliance, says if radio phone-ins are any guide the public are ready for cuts
On almost every major political issue Westminster lags a long way behind public opinion.
The great theme on public spending in the last 20 years or so has been that spending cuts are the Great Satan as far as the public are concerned. Perhaps at particular times this was true but – as happens so often – times have changed and Westminster has not.
In reality, the public have seen many examples of public sector waste both in the media and in their own experience. The public sector payroll has grown so much that most of them probably know state employees who either exemplify or testify to the excessive largesse of government in Britain.
At the same time, people have experienced and rejected the socialist experiment. In local government terms, perhaps they were once willing to buy the argument that if only we paid more council tax then services would get better. But after a decade in which council tax has doubled, what have they got?
More likely than not, fortnightly bin collections instead of weekly; draconian parking regimes seeking to squeeze money out of them at any opportunity; playing fields that have been flogged off and built on; brighter, glossier and more regular council propaganda magazines. The high-tax-high-spenders have had a go, but the public have not seen any real benefits.
The danger of a failure to appreciate this shift in public opinion is particularly hazardous to a Government that has to deal with a deficit that threatens the well-being of our economy. If they were to accept the Westminster group-think (or the BBC’s assumptions about public opposition to cuts) then they would be scared off taking the necessary action entirely, or would only cut spending a bit rather than the sizeable amounts required.
The scale of the deficit and the national debt has now reached such a terrifying level that the new Government have forged ahead with cuts – though until the Emergency Budget next week we won’t know whether they are going to go far enough.
Eric Pickles was quick out of the blocks last week, informing councils across the land of how much money they need to save this year. Given the prevailing wisdom in the Westminster Village, he could be forgiven for feeling a bit trepidatious about the public’s reaction to his £1.1 billion spending cuts plan.
My experience discussing the announcement with people, though, should give him some encouragement. Take for example the radio phone-ins and interviews my colleagues and I have taken part in on this subject over the last few days. It’s not a scientific survey, but you can be pretty sure that if the public are up in arms it will filter through to plenty of people phoning up such shows and berating the poor individual who is defending the Government’s policy.
But that’s not what happened. We at the TPA are obviously deficit hawks and firmly support radical action to reduce public spending, but even we have been pleasantly surprised by the thoughtful response of the public to the news.
More often than not, having been booked to do an interview by a producer who understandably wants to have an inflammatory debate with the listeners about whether it’s fair their council should face cuts, we have been met by an audience who accept the need for reduced spending as common sense.
It was particularly encouraging for me, as a native of the North East of England who gets quite frustrated when friend in the South assume that everyone “up north” just wants to fleece the taxpayer, to hear a message from a radio listener in Teesside read out saying that the TaxPayers’ Alliance “talked the most sense I’ve heard in a long time”.
More than accepting the need for cuts, we are getting the strong impression that the public just want someone to start being honest with them. They didn’t buy Gordon Brown’s King Canute-inspired spin that the spending could just rise for ever, and they didn’t buy the concept of “sharing the proceeds of growth” either. They have implemented very real cuts in their own homes to balance their personal budgets, and they know the state must do the same.
Interestingly, in these post-Blair days I find that the people are well-equipped with a healthy political cynicism, too. Time and again people express concern not that essential services will need to be cut but that local politicians or council managers who want to sabotage the programme will maliciously target cuts at painful areas to make a political point. If that happens, those responsible will get very short shrift for playing politics with things that really matter.