Over the next few days I’m going to be rounding up the position the three main parties find themselves in the polls at the end of 2010, and looking forward at what faces them in the year ahead, starting with the Conservatives.

The Conservatives received little in the way of a post-election honeymoon (there was nothing like the huge leads Labour recorded over the summer of 1997), but equally their support has been surprisingly robust. There was an expectation that the cuts and tax rises in the government’s first budget would damage their poll ratings, but if anything it increased their standing. That was followed by the expectation that the announcement of detailed cuts in October would lead to Conservative support crashing, but instead it has proved remarkably robust. The vast majority of polls (basically everyone but Angus Reid) continue to show the Conservatives at or above the level of support they recorded at the general election.

This is unlikely to last forever. There is a gradual decline in approval of the government, and public opinion is slowly moving away from the cuts strategy. Around November a plurality of people began to think the government was handling the economy badly (the latest figures are 40% well, 47% badly), in December for the first time more people thought the cuts were bad for the economy (43%) than good for it (40%). The strategy of placing the blame for the cuts on Labour is also wearing thin – 65% of people continue to blame the last Labour government for the cuts (not much changed from straight after the election), but 47% now blame the current government, up from 36% just after the election (the figures overlap because 24% blame both of them).

Despite attempts to present their cuts as progressive and balanced, the government are increasingly losing the argument on whether cuts are fair or not – only 32% think they are fair, 54% unfair (though it’s worth remembering that some people will regard cutting the deficit as more important than protecting the least well off – so thinking the cuts are unfair is not the same as opposing them).

At some point this trend is likely to be reflected in support in the polls – my own expectation is that Conservative support will drop after the local elections in May. They are defending seats won on anti-government protest votes in 2007, I’d expect them to suffer some hefty losses and their first big defeat to crystalise the growing disillusionment with the cuts.

It’s more debateable how much this matters. Of course, it would be easier for David Cameron if he still led in the polls, but it was probably never to be. The Conservatives seem to have bet the farm on the strategy of imposing the cuts, suffering the unpopularity, and waiting for the economy to improve in time for them to face the electorate (though one might very well conclude that it was the only strategy really open to them). To some extent, therefore, how well the Conservatives do in the voting intention polls in the short term while the economy is still struggling and the cuts are still being implemented is irrelevant – they are expecting to be unpopular. What will be critical is whether their position in the polls recovers once the cuts have bedded in, public services have adapted, and people’s economic optimism and opinion of the current state of the economy start to rise… and we’re probably a year or more away from that. We should expect the next year to be one of bad polling news for the Conservatives, but it will be the polls in 2014 and 2015 that tell us how likely they are to be re-elected.

In the meantime, there are probably two or three short term concerns:

First, while the Conservative leadership’s strategy accepts it will be behind in the polls, it doesn’t mean the rank and file will be quite so sanguine. If the party starts suffering badly in the polls it may also result in growing unhappiness on the Conservative backbenches, and an image of disunity is normally extremely damaging for a party (though for those anxious to see bad news for the government, remember that governments can happily accept constant criticism from the usual suspects – the opposition of John McDonnell, Jeremy Corbyn and so on was basically ignored by Tony Blair. People like Peter Bone, Philip Hollobone and Philip Davies are the Conservative equivalent – so don’t take noises from that direction as sign of impending disaster).

Secondly, there is to what extent presiding over the cuts undoes the Conservative attempts over the last five years to rid themselves of the image that they are only concerned about the rich. While Cameron made great progress in detoxifying the Conservative party, he did not manage to rid it of the perception that they cared more for the rich than the poor, and most commentators (correctly in my view) see this as a reason the Conservatives fell short at the last election.

Some people have floated the idea that the Conservative alliance with the Liberal Democrats would complete the process of “detoxification”, people would think that the Conservatives couldn’t be so bad after all if the cuddly, bearded old-Lib Dems were happy to work with them (though if anything it seems to be working the other way round – the coalition is “toxifying” the Lib Dems). More recently there are concerns it will work the other way round as the media narrative over the relationship between the coalition partners has often been couched in terms of the Lib Dems being the nice cop and the Conservatives the nasty one – perhaps being together in a coalition could make the Conservatives look even nastier by constrast. Certainly the growing perceptions that the cuts are being done unfairly is unlikely to help.

Either way, so far perceptions haven’t changed much one way or the other – in May 2010 just after the coalition was formed 46% thought the description “It seems to appeal to one section of society rather than to the whole country” applied most to the Conservatives, when YouGov asked the question again in December 2010 the figure was unchanged on 46%.

Thirdly, there is the position of the Liberal Democrats. If David Cameron is depending upon the eventual economic recovery he needs his government to endure for long enough to see it happen. The biggest threat to that is the coalition collapsing in some way. Hence in many ways, he needs to be more worried about how his coalition partners are doing in his polls than his own party’s rating… but I’ll address the Liberal Democrats in more detail in the next post.


88 Responses to “End of year round up – the Conservatives”

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  1. The Tories success or failiure both in govt and at the next election depends on the Lib Dems. If the Lib Dems break up on the back of unpopular cuts and dire poll ratings, then an early election is possible.
    However a collapse in Lib Dem support gifts the Tories both a sizeable chunk of Lib Dem support and seats where they are the only real contenders.

  2. Thank Anthony

    I don’t actually anticipate too many problems for the Tories next year, as most who voted Conservative did so in full knowledge that the axe would be swung on the public sector. That is why their support remains robust and I would expect this to continue.

    That said, I would be amazed if this time next year the Tories would be polling at anywhere near 40%. Low to mid 30% mark is much more realistic.

  3. The Conservative strategy seems firmly nailed to a GE in 2014/15.

    But this was assumed back in the day they expected to have a strong majority.

    They actually have no majority.

    Whilst I dont expect a GE in 2011 – but I think there is a very good chance of one in 2012.

    If that happens, their strategy would appear to have broken down.

    They might do well to soften their approach a little against the chance of an early election.

  4. Has anyone done any work on what would happen if there was a formal Tory-Lib Dem pact at the next election?

  5. On the train back from Edinburgh I caught the headline 1 in 10 will be unemployed – later I found that this is from a CIPD report predicting 10% unemployment, and they also blame the depth of the public sector cuts.

    All this goes to underline that Cameron’s survival will be based on the long term prospects for the economy – not the lack of a honeymoon, or any immediate anguish delivered by the cuts – yes people’s lives will be ruined but the GE will not take place for up to 4.5 years.

    If his economic experiment comes good by 2014 then the current unpopularity of the Government will come to nothing. Personally I doubt if it will work, our society is now far to complex not to have a substantial public sector. Once that meant ‘non-productive’ but today’s public sector feeds the private sector, and is an engine for growth, not just consumption. What damaged the economy was the private sector’s non-productive sector – such as banking and related non-manufacturing services

  6. AW
    “…the cuddly, bearded old-Lib Dems…”

    Lovely image!

    Great analytical article. And really non-partisan, too. Thanks

  7. Tory support has remained steady, largely I think because they’re doing the things they told their supporters they would do. Cuts in theory are great but we’ll see soon enough whether cuts in practice taste as sweet. I expect their voting intention to slip away a little a few months after the the start of the new tax year.

    The comment about a 2015 election sounds about right. Conservatives and Lib Dems are united by a common fear of a repeat election.

  8. I don’t think the Conservatives need to worry about an early election. Ignoring the boost Labour have had from disgruntled LD support, around 10-12% worth of support, their swing from the Conservatives is quite small, no more than 2%. Elections have been won by small swings like that, but hardly with a decent majority.

    I think even if things stay as they are, Labour will struggle to produce more than 2-3% of swing to them from the Conservatives. It’s enough to make the largest party, but guess who will be invited to help them govern?

  9. @RAF & Colin

    I am not convinced that the Conservative poll ratings have yet reacted to the reality of cuts. To date most cuts are either in the planning stages or still to have an impact.

    Politicians of all parties have spread the myth of painless cuts – cutting down massive waste, getting rid of overpaid administrators, reducing benefit fraud, stamping down on tax evasion. It is just silly to assume that Gordon Brown was in some way remiss and didn’t try to make these saving when he was in office. I am sure some savings can be made in this way – but I am equally sure that these savings are not easy to realise. The benefit fraudsters will find another way to defraud society leaving those honest claimants in deeper need. The administrators will earn overtime planning and counting the requested savings. Accountants have always, and will always find ways to reduce the tax bills of the rich – it is their raison d’etre.

    The savings required by the conservative economic plans will only be made by closing departments, making public sector employees redundandant and charging more for less.

    The Lib Dems took the hit for increased tuition fees and the Conservatives have backed down over playing fields and free books.

    Now Sara Payne is leading protests against the closure of the forensic science service, saying that her daughters killer, Roy Whiting, would be free without their work. Do the government back down or take the hit over what is a relatively small saving.

    Perhaps unfairly, the government’s cancelling of a relatively cheap advertising campaign is being blamed for the growing flu outbreak. The old and vulnerable are the very people who need to be reminded . Each time this winter there is a shortage of intensive care beds it will be forgotten that it happened last time – the cancellation of the advertising campaign will be blamed. It it worth saving £1.5 million – it must be tempting to back down on this one.

    I pick these as simple examples of a wider problem facing the government. Everyone supports the myth of painless, sensible cuts. They do not support tuition fees, playing fields, the forensic service, health campaigns etc etc etc. Borrowing actually rose last month – to keep on target the goverment is going to have to start make real deep cuts and will have to stick to them.

    It will not be possible to assess the impact of cuts on the Conservative polling ratings until they get personal – with real people starting to lose real jobs and real services. There is such a difference between getting rid of a mythical highly paid and unnecessary administrator and finding that your own mother is going to have to wait longer for a hip replacement!

  10. Ian Lichfield – “… painless, sensible cuts”

    Neither will the public fully take on board the distinction that Tory strategy is keen to impress upon them…

    namely that the reponsibility for say, closing a hospital or a school, will have been delegated down to local level, and is no concern of the relevant minister.

    People may begin to misinterpret this as a strategy of abdicating rather than delegating responsibility.

  11. I think it is wrong to assume that if we have an 2014/15 GE and the economy is strong, the government will reap the benefits. That’s not how elections work; the public don’t choose a government as a reward for having done good. They choose a government based on who they believe can prevent their fears from happening. If in 2014/15 the economy is good, providing it’s been good for at least a year, that election won’t be fought on who can handle the economy (well not in the same way it was this year), it will be fought on other concerns we just can’t know yet. Possibly, after the cuts, public services.

  12. I think that the year for the Tories can be broken into two parts: before and after the election.

    Before is a disaster. They failed to deliver a working majority when fighting against one of the most unpopular leaders in recent political history. Imagine Blair coming out of the 97 election with no majority… that bad.

    After the election is a bit of a triumph. The heat is being taken by their junior partners, their poll numbers arevreally solid, and so far internal dissent has been limited.

    The future is another matter of course, but the polls don’t ask “if there was a general election in 2015…”

  13. @ Billy Bob

    I take your point.

    It is odd what people do and do not pick up on.

    It is many, many years since I knocked on doors canvassing, but I do remember that it was rare for local elections to be determined on local issues. Most people voted at local elections according to how they felt about national politicians – the only exceptions were independent candidates standing on a single local issue such as a hospital closure. I think that it is unlikely that the Conservatives will be able to pin the cuts that Mr Pickles has made inevitable on the local councils that are forced to make them. There is an argument that they should have appointed a slightly lower profile minister if this was their plan.

    Having said that, it seems that many voters consider the rise in tuition fees to be a Lib Dem policy. I would have thought that having the university funding policy defined by a Lib Dem Business minister rather than the Conservative Education minister was so transparent as to fool no-one, and yet most anger has been directed at the Lib Dems. PLEASE NOTE – I raise this only as an example of the rather arbitrary way in which the public place blame rather than in the hope of starting another 200 comment debate on the rights and wrongs of the Lib Dems change of heart on tuition fees!!!

  14. Not sure that it will be that bad a year for the Conservatives- I think they will win th most council seats, though (I hope) labour will come second. A lot of the seats in southern england where labour may have won in the 1990s are still not winnable, and I havent seen much of a labour revival there. plus there will be no money to campaign on.

    They diddnt do that well in Scotland or Wales in 2007 so there isnt too much to lose.

  15. I find with great humour and great shock, in equal amounts, that so many people, even in this article, are predicting….no, expects, the economy will improve and it will come as the saviour for the coalition parties.

    Like Osborne’s complete over reliance on an historical record breaking number of exports to lead the country to strong growth, many people will be proven wrong.

  16. @ Duncan

    I kind of agree though I wouldn’t say that the first part of the year was a disaster for the Tories or even that the second half has been a triumph. I think Cameron deserves a lot of credit for being able to push through so much of his agenda despite not being able to obtain a majority in the House of Commons. And while he hasn’t enjoyed a honeymoon, he’s managed to at least keep Tory support levels at what they were at the election if not a bit higher.

  17. If the AV vote in the house of commons fails this coalitions over.

  18. @Eric Goodyer,

    I am a bit confused by your description of the public sector as “an engine for growth”. Could you point me in the direction of the sectors you consider this to apply to? Do you mean in the sense of “an engine for growth in the sales of things that the public sector buys” or an actual net boost to the economy? Would that money have created less growth if spent by private firms/individuals, and if so, why?

    @Red Rag,

    That the economy will improve is almost without question. That’s the nature of the economic cycle. Every recession is followed by growth. If it wasn’t, we’d still be in recession (which we’re not). Whether improvement will be the saviour of the coalition in 2015 is a different question, of course.

    On the Forensic Science Service,

    For professional reasons I was a bit non-plussed by the winding down of what (originally) were the government’s own crime laboratories. It’s fair to say that there has been a lot of diversification and much of the FSS workload is now done by other private companies, or in house by police forces. I can only assume that this will increase to fill the vacuum. I don’t think anyone is suggesting that the police will no longer be able to examine DNA from suspects etc (although of course it’s easy to portray it that way). I will try to find out what exactly is going on (I will have to, I am a frequent customer of the FSS).

    Overall, I’d say most Tories have got most of what they (we) wanted. Labour is out. Cuts are happening. Reform is underway. The sky hasn’t quite fallen in (unless you’re a LibDem). There’s plenty that I don’t like, but I think most of the “gaffes” are just normal opposition seizure of opportunity. Such things come and go for every government. If the party remains, as AW puts it, “sanguine” and concentrates on governing rather than trying to stay popular, then I think the Tory side of the coalition at least will have a steady 2011.

  19. Sorry. Who are these people you are talking about?

    Are they like the Christian Democrats in Germany?

    I’m told that there are some of these people in Scotland – but that may be yet another urban (or perhaps rural) myth.

  20. @ Neil A

    Re: Private Crime Labs

    I think there’s a real danger to taking the government out of the regulation and supervision of forensics labs. In recent years in the U.S., we’ve been finding all sorts of crime lab malfeasance and fraud and discovering that all sorts of evidence used to convict people was faulty. And then there was a National Academies of Sciences Report last year pointing out all the flaws and unreliability in much physical evidence (ballistics, bite marks, pubic hair evidence, fingerprints, etc) relied upon in courts.

    That’s not to say that the government is perfect and makes no mistakes. But when you outsource forensics to private groups, you run a big risk of increasing faulty evidence because you lose direct oversight. You also run another risk of coming up with different standards for the same peices of evidence.

  21. I agree, there still seems to be an assumption that the Conservatives are the ruling party and will be in government for five years and then there will be a general election.
    None of this is certain. The Tories did not win the election. The Coalition may well crumble following the Telegraph’s undercover reporting this month. It is very likely, if not certain, that the Tories can now expected to be defeated.
    I would predict the Tories support falling to mid thirties by the middle of next year.
    I still think there is a possibility that a general election could be forced if the government are defeated.
    Are Labour ready?

  22. @Nick OK

    I agree with you totally. We seem rather too obsessed with “It’s the economy, stupid”.

    I think that if the economy in is trouble the goverment is unlikely to be returned. However, if the economy is is on the mend and growing nicely the election will be decided on who has the most popular policies on spending the new found wealth. People vote about the future rather than the past – Churchill is the obvious example of this.

    More recently and relevantly John Major’s government left the economy in good shape but got little recognition of this at the polling stations.

  23. A good year for the Conservatives and Cameron (give or take a couple of minor gaffes) is doing well as PM.
    Low to mid thirties in the second half of the year (maybe even below 30 during the volatile conference season) will set them fair for a poll recovery starting during 2013, nicely in time for 2015. If the numbers drop below 30 for a sustained period they may worry a little depending on how the other VI breaks.
    An early GE must be their biggest cocnern but I can’t see it as why would the LDs pull the plug when in such a bad position?
    My, perhaps partial, opinion is that George Osborne is a weakness – not got a good image, can seem out of his depth and has a tendency to do things for short term political effect rather than for the Economy long term and with insufficient regard to the medium term ‘fairness’ of the measure
    Recent revelations about the ‘Govenors’ views of him and the LD ministers remarks increase and cement this perception.
    Sill I expect a modest Con majority at the next GE as Lab will not be ready and/or convincing enough and as long as the recovery is reasonable the public will ‘give them another go’ as the other lot had 13 years.

  24. The public sector is an engine for growth. It represents a huge purchasing base that is filled by the private sector, it provides employment and thus wages that are spent, it out-sources far more than in the 1980s and thus opens up opportunities for the private sector to deliver innovative services.

    BIS invests in UK industry via the Technology Strategy Board and Knowledge Transfer Partnerships – promoting innovation especially amongst SMEs, bridging the funding gap that Banks refuse to fill. Universities develop new ideas, systems and products that are taken on by industry and generate wealth through production. Social Housing creates building sector jobs, drives innovation in modern methods of construction. Infrastructure (road and rail investment) offer opportunitities for private sector contracts. The NHS offers opportunities for product sales, service delivery and innovation.

    I can go on – but the message is that the Private Sector is no longer isolated from the Public Sector – cut the public sector and you damage UK industrial output.

    In contrast what wealth do Private Sector operations like banking, estate agents, accountants etc deliver – the simplistic claims that Private create wealth and Public consumes no longer applies. Both sectors provide wealth creating production outcomes, and wealth consuming services.

  25. Don’t write off the Tories yet. They are not stupid.
    They’ve done it before, now they’ve dug up Gentle John Major with his “blood boiling” again.
    He succeeded when Maggie ‘failed’ with the electors didn’t he?

  26. @SoCalLiberal,

    The Forensic Science Service, whilst government owned, is already effectively a commercial company operating in a competitive market alongside half a dozen other companies. All of them do work for both prosecution and defence cases. So far as I know it isn’t regulated any differently from any of the others. It’s a pretty good company, but not perfect (and loss-making, obviously, hence the decision to close it). I have personally picked holes in one or two of their expert reports on the basis of my own limited scientific knowledge. Ultimately when you want some scientific work undertaken, you are really commissioning an individual scientist to do it. Which “company” (or police lab etc) they work for isn’t that relevant. The individual themself will have to produce the report, and give evidence, and be cross-examined about their findings. Malfeasance and incompetence is largely down to the actions of individuals, rather than the company they work for.

    I love most things about the States, but from my personal experience of your criminal justice system it is barely fit for purpose and it doesn’t surprise me overmuch that the forensic labs have problems too. I often wonder whether the poor resourcing of public defenders has led to a situation where hardly any effort is made at all to ensure that the various elements of the system are acting diligently. That is a separate lesson for the UK government, perhaps, who are in the process of scaling back Legal Aid (although civil cases seem to be their main target at the moment).

  27. @Eric,

    I like your choice of banking, accountants, estate agents etc. Essentially service industries that support the functions of the rest of the private sector (although even now banking in it’s wider sense is a source of income for the UK).

    Growth, in my opinion, comes from a set amount of wealth being used to produce a return. To use the old cliche, exanding the pie rather than re-slicing it. The public sector does very little of this, but some sectors of the private sector do it a great deal.

    I don’t dispute that the public sector is essential and valuable (I work in it) and that it is a very important client for many, many private firms. And obviously the wages it pays support a great many more private firms through domestic spending. But I dispute that it is an “engine” for growth. That would suggest that the more money you spend on it, the healthier your economy would get, which I don’t believe for a second (otherwise the Soviet Union would have been a runaway success).

  28. @Neil
    The Soviet Union failed because the State tried to control consumption, and planned production based on the State’s view of what consumers wanted. I remember well travelling in Eastern Europe and finding empty shops. When I asked why was there no food int the shops, my friends replied ‘it was not in the plan’. What the Soviet Union disposed off was personal choice of consumption, which we need to feed our manufacturing systems under our economic system.

    My definition of wealth is production of goods and services that people want to purchase. So hairdressing is wealth production, as is a GPs surgery. Wealth consumption arises from services that life off of the backs of this basic trade.

    Thus wealth (i.e. goods and services that people want to buy) can arise in both the public & private sector. We buy them either using cash in our pockets, or by taxation – nothing is free. Similarly consumption (e.g. Police, Army, Banking etc) arise in both sectors – but we oft need these services as well to make it all work

    Though I do not really think that this is a great issue to debate.

  29. @ Neil A

    I think it is Blaise to declare growth always follows recession. Many commentators would say that it was only a combination of the New Deal (in America) and the second world war that ended the recession of the 30s. Without the massive public expenditure these two generated thee was no end in sight. IMO growth follows recession because of the economic policies pursued by the government. This government does not have a policy to encourage growth, quite the opposite, it is merely gambling on others to buy our goods, in an export boom , which is far from a foregone conclusion.

  30. public sector engines for growth

    education…….obvious
    transport networks
    health………sick people don’t work
    law

    i’m sure that you can all come up with more and with good reasons explaining how public sector spending supports private sector business

    the whole public versus private argument is silly, they support each other

  31. @richard in norway

    the whole public versus private argument is silly, they support each other

    ———-

    Absolutely correct.

    It is naive political dogma to argue that a country – or an economy – needs one but not the other.

    Ultra-left Soviet dogma at the one end of the spectrum, ultra-right Tea-Party quackery at the other end. Both as bad – and as wrong – as each other!

  32. 2011 will be the year of massive arguments in the Tory party about Europe. Cameron and Osborne will be under pressure to help out Eurozone countries beyond what has so far been agreed. Expect a large Tory backbench rebellion and the government only winning with support from Labour.

    My instincts are that there is a large majority of Eurosceptic MP’s on the Tory backbenches and that they will not tolerate the UK government providing funds to help any further bailouts. The reason that the UK may be asked to help is that France and Germany will not politically be able to come up with the funds necessary, so will pressurise the UK to stump up more money. The pressure will come in the form of argument that the collapse of the Euro and the fallout will harm the UK economy over a long period, costing much more than any additional bailout money.

    If this happens the coalition government will be put under massive strain as it attempts to adjust spending levels. Once backbench MP’s become use to being ‘rebels’, they will also vote against government policies which affect their consituents. Some Tory MP’s will be seen as less loyal than many Lib Dem backbenchers.

    2010 has been a bad year for Clegg, even though he has brought his party into government for the first time in 90 years. 2011 will be seen as the year when Camerons grip on power started to erode, after many fallouts with his own party. This is probably why many Tories are trying to cement the Lib Dems at the heart of the government. Perhaps Cameron is more afraid of Tory ‘rebels’ than he is of Lib Dems leaving the coalition.

  33. 2011 will be the year of massive arguments in the Tory party about Europe. Cameron and Osborne will be under pressure to help out Eurozone countries beyond what has so far been agreed. Expect a large Tory backbench rebellion and the government only winning with support from Labour.

    My instincts are that there is a large majority of Eurosceptic MP’s on the Tory backbenches and that they will not tolerate the UK government providing funds to help any further bailouts. The reason that the UK may be asked to help is that France and Germany will not politically be able to come up with the funds necessary, so will pressurise the UK to stump up more money. The pressure will come in the form of argument that the collapse of the Euro and the fallout will harm the UK economy over a long period, costing much more than any additional bailout money.

    If this happens the coalition government will be put under massive strain as it attempts to adjust spending levels. Once backbench MP’s become use to being ‘rebels’, they will also vote against government policies which affect their consituents. Some Tory MP’s will be seen as less loyal than many Lib Dem backbenchers.

    2010 has been a bad year for Clegg, even though he has brought his party into government for the first time in 90 years. 2011 will be seen as the year when Camerons grip on power started to erode, after many fallouts with his own party. This is probably why many Tories are trying to cement the Lib Dems at the heart of the government. Perhaps Cameron is more afraid of Tory ‘rebels’ than he is of Lib Dems leaving the coalition.

    I sense that Cameron is portraying more confidence than he is currently feeling and that there is deep concern in the Tory party about various policy directions.

  34. @Ian in Lichfield

    ‘ Do the government back down or take the hit over what is a relatively small saving.’

    I think that the ‘relatively small’ is part of the problem with many people looking for some silver bullet to painlessly resolve our problems. We are ignoring Mao’s advice that’ every long journey begins with a small step’.

    I heard an interview with a senior person at the Human Fertilisation and Embryology quango discussing the paltry £2m pa savings of closing it down. Quizzed about any attempts to reduce costs/ improve efficiency she agreed that that was possible and a review would be set up. Similarly an interview with a senior scientist at the Forensic Service revealed that given time they could reduce costs, improve efficency, reduce the paltry £2m pa losses and compete directly with the private sector. These are all laudable aims but what have they both been doing up to now. The cuts agenda was clear whoever won the election.

    I agree with many of your doubts about reducing costs/improving efficiency however some depts seem to have made little effort. Cynically I could suggest that they expected cuts rather than closure and therefore maintained their budgets; that’s what I would have done. It seems that some depts have relied on the govt not only as lender of last resort but lender of first resort. I am not remotely surprised that GB’s efforts were unsuccessful in that environment. Whether current efforts are any more successful only time will tell as the flow of money is stopped?

  35. Neil A

    “I love most things about the States, but from my personal experience of your criminal justice system it is barely fit for purpose and it doesn’t surprise me overmuch that the forensic labs have problems too.”

    Is it possible to generalise about the provision of such services across the USA? Most of these are state run as opposed to a Federal provision.

    Even in the UK, such things are not centralised under Westminster control (except in the south-eastern bit).

  36. The Scottish Education Minister Mike Russell is on the BBC suggesting that 32 education authorities in Scotland is too many.

  37. Wolf

    Russell is absolutely right. The Tories produced a totally inefficient and expensive system of local government when they last applied their English model to Scotland.

  38. ‘WOLF
    The Scottish Education Minister Mike Russell is on the BBC suggesting that 32 education authorities in Scotland is too many.’

    Really? That’s daft; 4 would be plenty- one for Edinburgh, one for Glasgow, one for Highlands and Islands and one for the rest given the size of the population.

  39. @Eric Goodyear and Chris Todd

    It is not only naive to argue that you can have only one of a public or a private sector, it is also a straw man. Going back to Eric’s original claim

    “If his economic experiment comes good by 2014 then the current unpopularity of the Government will come to nothing. Personally I doubt if it will work, our society is now far to complex not to have a substantial public sector”

    this is not what the Tories are arguing for; they are just triming back the public sector to its levels in 2001 or some such. It’s tough to maintain that society has got hugely more complex in the last 10 years.

    My guess is that the polls at the moment are completely meaningless in the absence of one critical piece of information. I think we can safely assume that the LibDems have lost their soft-left anti-Labour voters so will be stuck at say 10-15% at the next election. What is important, is what is the geographic distribution of these voters.

    Paddy Ashdown was quoted in Rob Wilson’s recent book on the coalition formation as saying he had spent 20 years chasing Labour out of the South West. If Labour gets back in there and splits the anti-Tory vote couldn’t we see an significant increase in the number of Tory MPs even if their vote share remains at or around current levels?

    Anthony – are you aware of anyone planning to do any specific work on this topic? Strikes me as potentially a very interesting regional poll for YouGov to do.

  40. ‘RICHARD IN NORWAY
    public sector engines for growth
    education…….obvious
    transport networks
    health………sick people don’t work
    law
    i’m sure that you can all come up with more and with good reasons explaining how public sector spending supports private sector business’

    Scientific research; state provision.
    Railway safety; state provision. (and all areas of safety. I do not trust private companies when a conflict is obvious with profit margins.)

    Yes , we need both state and private sectors

  41. Scottish Education Authorities?
    The SNP have been in power for 3.5 years and an election is looming and they have noticed now that there are too many education authorities. Interesting to see what change is proposed

  42. @ Neil A

    “Growth, in my opinion, comes from a set amount of wealth being used to produce a return. To use the old cliche, exanding the pie rather than re-slicing it. The public sector does very little of this, but some sectors of the private sector do it a great deal.”

    I happen to agree with you :-). Most of the public sector spending is reallocation of resources, thus it does not contribute directly to producing new value. It can enable certain private companies to produce more or at all (that is providing a margin or a demand at which margins allow production or service provision), however, then the question is: should these companies survive like this? Hence I agree with the point by someone earlier that the private-public is a strawman.

    Transport certainly contributes to value produced, but since the government does not strategically control it, it is largely irrelevant whether it’s private or public (if there was strategic control, then it would be very relevant).

    Hospitals do not contribute to the value produced. It’s good that sick people are treated, even more poor sick people can die under medical supervision, but it has nothing to do with the question of producing value.

    The same applies for education – if the educated person is not employed or not employed where he or she could utilise the knowledge then…? It is important that people are educated, but it is not related to the question of producing value.

    The massive expansion of these non-value producing, but extremely important services (and some that are not important at all) explains how it is possible that industry and the productive sectors are in such a difficult state even though in large manufacturing companies the value produced is about three times as big as cost, yet they realise only a fraction of this.

  43. @ Anthony

    A very thoughful, analytical summary that crosses over different questions, thus it highlights quite a few dependencies.

    Thank you.

  44. @ Aleksandar

    “I agree with many of your doubts about reducing costs/improving efficiency however some depts seem to have made little effort. Cynically I could suggest that they expected cuts rather than closure and therefore maintained their budgets; that’s what I would have done. It seems that some depts have relied on the govt not only as lender of last resort but lender of first resort.”

    Very good point. And there were also department where the constant efficiency drives increased the cost of operation…

    Of course, the whole cutting exercise is a bargaining process with satisficing behaviour, hence the limited likely effect (except for closures). Shirking or cheating are really the two main behavioural patterns…

  45. @Charles

    There’s some subtle problems with comparing government spending prior to 2001, with that today. One such problem may have something to do with our military being mobilised.

    Yes, public spending went up against GDP by 10% from 2001 to 2010… But that’s really to be expected if you’re spending on a war, and have an economic recession that needed bailouts too. The idea that *domestic* spending is being returned to 2001 levels may not be accurate.

    Unless we expect to be in a permanent state of war, and keep having to bail out the economy every single year, then public spending levels would probably return to around 36-39 of their own accord.

    The actual question is how much needs to be cut to reduce the national debt down to cut interest payments. And how much public spending can be cut, without knock-on effects that result in reducing government revenue by more than is saved. And how long these cuts need to last.

    There is growing public opinion in polling that government are now cutting too fast, cutting too hard, and cutting unfairly. There is also concern that the ‘cost cutting temporary measures’ campaigned on seem to be becoming permanent policy, which is where talk about ‘decisions pushed by ideology’ comes from.

  46. An interesting, multi stranded and, as always on UKPR, a high quality discussion on this thread. I tend to agree with the broad analysis of what constitutes the current strengths and weaknesses of the Tories’ position and, mainly addressed at Neil, my only additional observation to make on the public v private sector growth generation debate is this. Why do we think that Germany and France, the two economic powerhouses of post war Europe, and the Scandanavian countries too, who have much larger public sectors than post-Thatcher Britain, have a history of considerably better economic growth than our own? They’re also much more interventionist in supporting private industry too, whether they have a centre right or centre left government in power. In essence, they’ve maintained a largely social democratic political consensus and tended to run much more mixed economies than we have and I think there’s a moral in there somewhere. One of the great failings of the Thatcher governments was to inculcate this view of “public bad, private good” that more or less became the underpinning credo of the economic orthodoxy that she established. I think we still suffer from it to do this day in this country.

    One further thought on the Conservative’s current standing in the polls. Anthony’s analysis is a good one although he may be slightly overplaying the strengths of their current position. I think the comparative brevity and weakness of the honeymoon they enjoyed after May should be quite worrying for them. I was surprised by it, to be honest, and I’m not being disingenuous at all when I say that I didn’t think I’d see them bobbing about in the mid to late 30s this early into the Parliament. I think the reason for this is two fold. Firstly, their overall position in the country is nowhere near as strong as it was in their heyday, either organisationally or in terms of core voter strength. I may be out on a limb with this theory, and I always have to guard against partisan wishful thinking, but I detect an endemic weakness about them as a party now, to the extent that I’d be very surprised to see them attain 40% or more of the popular vote in a national poll ever again. I base this on the electoral history of the last 20 years and my first hand experience of them campaigning on the ground. The old invincible electoral beast that once was only breathes spasmodically now. Secondly, I think they face a robuster opposition in ruder health than past Tory Governments ever had to encounter. The Lib Dem collapse has breathed new and unexpected life into a Labour Party that looked well on its way to the political wilderness only eight short months ago. In my view, this could become a very significant factor in calculating any potential or anticipated bounce-back for the Tories during this Parliament.

  47. Barney

    Lab/LD were in power for 8 years and didn’t even notice that there were too many authorities?

  48. @ Jay Blanc

    “There is growing public opinion in polling that government are now cutting too fast, cutting too hard, and cutting unfairly.”

    This was always going to happen when ACTUAL cuts happen. I forget where the polling figures came from, but I remember seeing figures from much earlier this year showing how people are in favour of cuts in principle, but in practice,when it comes down to actually cutting something in particular, they suddenly become opposed.

    Never underestimate the British public’s ability to hold two mutually opposing opinions about the same thing simultaneously.

    My view is that there has been a huge level of media overanticipation and frankly exaggeration about what cuts could actually mean of the “housing benefit claimants will be forced to eat own children, says pressure group” type.

    In reality, the planned cuts aim only to reduce spending to 40% of GDP by 2014/15 i.e. the same level as in 2006/07 when Brown had already opened the floodgates. If we cannot manage to run a decently resourced public sector on 40% share of GDP then there is something seriously wrong in the way the sector is set up in this country.

    The cuts are taking place in the context of a previous massive explosion in public spending (under Blair’s first term it was 36-37% of GDP). As long as the government does manage to cut waste, there is really no reason why the cuts should lead to the wholesale collapse in society, usually being forecast by pressure groups and trade associations dependent on government largesse.

    The reality will sink in that the cuts are not leading to the wholesale destruction of the public sector, and as long as job creation continues in the private sector (350,000 jobs in the first three quarters of 2010 alone). However, only when real disposable incomes start to rise, probably into 2012, will there be any feelgood factor in the economy. Until then, I think Labour will be on the up – probably 45% plus – and the Tories and Lib Dems will remain under severe pressure.

    Only if there is a serious attempt by Cameron’s right wingers to boot him out will the coalition collapse. With Cameron clinging to the Lib Dems in order to keep his UKIP wing at bay, and the Lib Dems terrified of losing their seats, my betting is it will be at least 2013 before the coalition could split, if then.

  49. “actual cuts are implemented”

  50. @Aleksandar

    Three thoughts on your response.

    I think that I should preface them by saying that I have voted Labour all my life which makes me instinctively opposed to any of the cuts. My comments are an attempt to think of things from the Conservative point of view given their commitment to the size and pace of the planned cuts.

    My first thought is that having announced a cut doing a U-turn is about more than just a loss of pride or appearing weak or muddled. The protests over the forensic science services will be all the more vociferous because people are beginning to believe that this government can be talked out of announced cuts. Announcing and then backing down on cuts in education will not make it any easier for the other departments. They have to stand their ground and soon.

    The second point follows on. In deciding cuts at such breakneck speed they have made mistakes already. They need to cut billions – saving a few million on highly unpopular cuts is just bad politics. Don’t spend your limited popularity on relatively small gains. The rise in VAT will not be popular but at least it will significantly help their cause.

    My third point is specific to the forensic science services. Your question as to why they have not previously made the required savings is unfair with regard to the FSS. I believe that massive structural changes, including the introduction of a ‘competitive’ marketplace were introduced less than two years ago. The FSS has been struggling to adapt to these changes as have the private companies working in the same field. The FSS has had little enough time just to work within the new framework, yet alone identify the most cost effective options. To decide to close them down based on their performance of the last two years seems to me a decision too soon and very unfair to a committed staff doing their best to cope with recent massive enforced change.

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