British public is slowly becoming more fiscally conservative

Allister Heath
MEMO to the political class: your electorate doesn’t believe you are spending their money wisely. The data is striking: 78 per cent of the public agree that “politicians are too reckless about how they spend taxpayers’ money”; just 12 per cent disagree, according to a poll by ComRes for the 4th Agenda.

The vast majority of supporters of all the main parties agree: 72 per cent of Conservative voters (even though we have a Tory-led coalition), 79 per cent of Labour voters (an astonishing finding) and 69 per cent of Lib Dem voters. Clearly, supposedly “left-wing” voters don’t see the world in neat ideological boxes – they mix and match policies.

While the poll doesn’t investigate this, such despondency is undoubtedly another reason for the rise of Ukip, which is increasingly backed by those who have lost confidence in the mainstream political establishment.

Even if the question is asked in a different way the findings are similar. Just 19 per cent agree that the government generally spends money wisely, while 66 per cent disagree. As so often, those in the poorest social groups are the most sceptical of the state’s ability to spend money sensibly – possibly because they disagree with subsidies to the arts or other handouts to the better off, or because they have personal experience of the waste that is endemic in the welfare state.

One way of halting Ed Miliband’s rise would be for his Tory opponents to relentlessly highlight that he is a big spender who would waste even more taxpayers’ money. Many people do want the government to spend more, of course, and would therefore be attracted to Labour’s message – but many of these might actually think again if they believe that the extra spending will be wasted.

Intriguingly, the ComRes/4th Agenda poll even appears to find massive support for constitutional limits to the public debt: by 50 to 27 per cent, the public agrees that there should be a national debt cap “even if it means sharp spending cuts and tax increases if that limit is reached”. Whether this result would actually hold were such action implemented remains to be seen; but at this stage at least Tory voters back such a US-style fiscal cliff 60-25 per cent and Lib Dem supporters 50-25 per cent. Even Labour voters would support the limit, albeit more narrowly at 40-37 per cent; many are worried about the national debt, but this appears to be largely cancelled out by their dislike of larger spending cuts.

These encouraging figures follow last week’s publication by YouGov of a series of surveys revealing that the public is once again becoming more supportive of spending cuts, with a clear trend over the past two and half years. In February 2011, 58 per cent said the cuts were being made too quickly; today, that has dropped to 46 per cent. The number saying the cuts are “too slow” – my own position – has increased from 5 to 13 per cent, while 27 believe that the pace is right. Remarkably, therefore, 40 per cent of the public backs the cuts or wants them to happen faster.

Similarly, the share that agrees that the cuts are too deep has fallen from 51 to 40 per cent; those arguing that the cuts are too shallow has jumped from 7 to 12 per cent. Crucially, those judging that the cuts are having no impact on their life has shot up from 18 per cent to 32 per cent, while those saying that they have has dropped from 71 per cent to 55 per cent since January 2011. Who said fiscal conservatism was dead in Britain?

These polls highlight a remarkable hardening of opinion. If the trend continues, it could have a huge impact on our political life in the years ahead – and not in the way Miliband might have been hoping for.
Follow me on Twitter: @allisterheath