A month ago I warned of a working-class revolt if the Government didn’t get to grips with the cost of living crisis. Since then, anger has intensified but the Government has done nothing to deal with the problem.
Occasionally – apparently via messages from sun loungers – the prime minister and Cabinet tell the public it’s for the new premier to take major financial decisions, but this is lost on people who face the prospect of financial wipe out.
I recently ran a new poll to test where the public is now; I briefly summarise the state of opinion here before suggesting some actions for the new leader.
Let’s begin by looking at the scale of the crisis. A number of senior Conservatives have floated ideas to knock off a few hundred pounds from energy bills, or to cut the cost of public transport. But this won’t vaguely begin to deal with the problem: Our poll revealed the following:
Of these, 72 per cent are cutting back on non-essential purchases, while, additionally 65 per cent are going out less, 46 per cent are driving less, 28 per cent are eating less meat and 24 per cent are driving differently (slower, braking less etc).
Many, many people face running out of money sooner rather than later. Not running out of money for luxuries or for trips to the pub; running out of actual money to heat their homes, feed their families, get to work and all the rest.
As I noted last time, the public mood is turning against the Government: 43 per cent think the it isn’t taking the cost of living crisis seriously (even 29 per cent of 2019 Tory voters agree); 55 per cent think the it could do more to help with rising costs but is choosing not to do so (44 per cent of 2019 Tory voters agree).
This would be bad enough for the Government at the best of times, but it’s made worse by enormous public expectations for Government action: 43 per cent expect the Government to provide subsidies to bill payers as costs rise; 31 per cent think they’ll put a cap on rises.
Consequently, without correspondingly large action, anger is likely to boil over.
What does the research suggest the new leader should do? Five things stand out.
Take massive action to help the least well-off
First things first, the scale of the problem means political and financial attention should be focused on poorer, working-class people.
There’s a debate to be had on whether the answer is targeted tax cuts, bill subsidies and so on (for what it’s worth, the poll shows the public favour “caps”: capping energy bills; capping the prices of essentials etc).
Either way, it should all be focused on those who are struggling and not universally applied. Action for the middle-class – and indeed for most businesses – can wait.
Politically this is vital: working-class voters are beginning to peel away from the Conservative Party in earnest partly because they’re particularly irritated with a lack of help from Government. These voters need to see the Government is paying them special attention.
Liz Truss’ campaign have given mixed messages about this in the last few days, with different people saying different things about the possible £400 energy bill subsidy; wealthier families should get nothing and poorer families should get much more. This is fair.
Aggressively tackle waste
I’ve written about this a lot in the last year; it seems like an obvious target, but no politician will go near it. Our poll shows 48 per cent agree there is waste in government spending and cutting it would make a huge difference to how much tax government needs to raise; an additional 31 per cent think it would make “a bit of a difference”.
They might be wildly and naively over-stating this, but that’s what they think. And given that’s what they think, the Government must act on waste in order to carry public opinion on spending cuts (see below). The public will accept broader spending cuts if they think the Government has done everything possible to cut waste.
Prepare to make cuts in public spending
For the first time in many years, the public are getting ready to accept genuine public spending cuts. In the leadership debate, this has all been absent from discussion but the candidates are missing a trick: the public are so desperate for any measures to help them out, they’re open to anything that will give the Government financial headroom.
Of course, NHS finances are basically sacred, but pretty much everything else now isn’t.
Recognise the difference between legitimate and illegitimate protest
Partly as a result of the strikes, partly as a result of Martin Lewis’ warnings, there’s been a lot of interest in the theme of disorder – whether there’ll be a boycott of bill payments, a growth in violent crime, and so on. It can be hard to disentangle, but looking at the polls closely the lessons are clear: people will accept legitimate protest, but they want violence crushed.
More people agree than disagree strikes are the best way to pressure employers into pay rises and 53 per cent think strikers are justified if they don’t get pay rises in line with inflation; asked what might happen as costs rise, a majority of people said: people having utilities cut off; boycotts of bills; more homelessness; more shoplifting; more home repossessions. A third say general disorder.
By 55 per cent to four per cent, people think sentences for muggings / robbery should be tougher in the cost of living crisis (with the rest saying the same, with a few don’t knows); by 55 per cent to four per cent people think sentences for burglaries should be tougher; by 39 per cent to ten per cent people think sentences for violent protests should be tougher.
However, by 49 per cent to five per cent people think sentences for non-payment of bills should be more lenient
Avoid political turmoil
It feels like, slowly but surely, more and more people regret their Leave vote. Remainers over-do all this: most people aren’t political so their “regret” isn’t that big a deal to them; they regret it like they regret not choosing a different sandwich for lunch. There just seems to be this sense that Brexit kicked off years of chaos, and it’d be nice to go back to the mid-2010s with a calm and competent leader, etc.
The real lesson is this: avoid geopolitical turmoil for the foreseeable future; that includes talking ourselves into a major incident with China. People can only take so much at a given time.