The Conservatives retain buoyancy in the polls largely because of provincial English working class loyalty towards the PM. Long used to being let down by politicians, the PM has delivered Brexit and tighter border controls and he’s making the right noises on “levelling up”. They respect him for it; Starmer is irrelevant.
Budgets are written with the national picture in mind, particularly during times of crisis. An ongoing pandemic and rapidly rising living costs put this week’s Budget squarely in the crisis category. But on these pages we explore politics – and the reality is, politically speaking, the most important audience for the Budget is this big group of working class voters. So how can the Government best appeal to them?
I’ve devoted many columns here to answering this question. From the advance coverage – like the suggestion they’ll be putting money into sport and culture to encourage civic pride – it looks like the Government is planning many of the right things. But today, I want to consider something extremely limited in scope and entirely defensive which I think could be very important in the coming months to working class voters: cutting Government waste.
Waste is an issue usually written off by political consultants as irrelevant or eccentric; the idea being no one believes politicians when they say they’re going to cut waste (and therefore only the politically naive take an interest in it). I have some sympathy with the presumption of public scepticism; wherever you get big Government, you get waste and it’s hard to think of a Government that successfully persuaded people they’ve been successful in reducing waste.
So why look at Government waste now? Fundamentally, because it’s vital – in the context of a high tax economy and squeezed living standards – that voters see the Government go through a process of actively considering and cutting unnecessary spending wherever they can before retaining high taxes or considering new ones.
While the Government isn’t expected to announce significant new taxes this week, we await the introduction of higher NICs and we seem to be a couple of years off meaningful tax cuts (from a high base). Waste retains an immediate relevance, therefore.
The opinion research I’ve conducted in recent times suggests waste has been growing as an issue for voters for some time, even before the recent NICs announcement. After the big injection of cash into the NHS pre-pandemic, while the public supported the move, in focus groups you’d regularly hear moans about NHS inefficiency and poor procurement practices (stories about over-payment for basic drugs, for example, regardless of the merits of the argument).
It’s a feature of the polls too: in a recent poll for the TaxPayers’ Alliance – centred around the cost of living – the poll showed people have a base level of scepticism in Governments’ ability to spend sensibly. Asked how much money the Government wastes, 50 per cent said “some of it, and more than enough of It to be a problem”, while 17 per cent said most of it.
By 40 per cent to 30 per cent (with the rest saying neither agree nor disagree or don’t know), people agreed with the statement that much of the money put into the NHS is wasted – although they said they thought the most wasteful departments were FCDO and DCMS.
Of course, this doesn’t meant voters necessarily believe the Government can cut waste. Nor does it imply that the Government can somehow win on waste by moving the polls on the issue; this would be very difficult. This is not my point; rather, it suggests the Government needs to focus on waste in the short-term so that it doesn’t lose on tax in the medium-term. Simply put: the Government needs to “prove” it has cut to the bone to justify existing or higher taxes.
How much of an issue is this really for the Conservatives? After all, surely no one will believe the Conservatives are more wasteful than the high-spending and ever-eccentric Labour Party? Worryingly for the Conservatives, in our poll for the TPA, more people said they would trust the Labour Party than the Conservatives on cutting waste. (By the way people also said they’d trust Labour more on tax). The truth is, the Conservatives self-image is a long way from the image of it held by the public.
Consider this: as a Conservative, would you sooner justify high taxes having done a review into Government waste or not? A review into waste wouldn’t drastically improve Conservative fortunes, but would help them soothe some very irritated and stressed out taxpayers.