Opinion Articles

Where will the axe fall? Public opinion and spending cuts

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In the final televised leaders' debate, each of the party leaders promised they would be honest with the electorate about how they would tackle the public deficit. This pledge came after the Institute for Fiscal Studies published an influential report that criticised Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats for failing to disclose the full details of their proposed cuts. Despite this, little further detail on spending cuts emerged during the debate, described by Alex Salmond of the Scottish National Party as resembling an 'iceberg'.

The election campaign of February 1950 was dominated by a strikingly similar debate. Against a growing economic crisis, the outgoing Labour government hoped to defend its record on having delivered 'fair shares' in extremely difficult circumstances, while the Conservative party sought to blame the worsening situation on 'Socialist extravagance' and called for people to be 'set free' from government interference, wasteful bureaucracy and 'ridiculous' controls. These arguments may have played out well amongst each party's core support, but the impact they had on undecided voters was less certain.

Although often regarded as apathetic, uninterested or ill-informed, many undecided voters were extremely concerned about the economic crisis. Alongside housing, food and the fear of war, the issue regularly topped opinion surveys of the most important problems facing the nation. Moreover, a significant number of voters were unhappy at the apparent lack of information available to them and felt disconnected from the political 'mud-slinging'. The Conservative party, in particular, was widely criticised for lacking a detailed programme to deal with the crisis and failing to explain where the axe might fall. This viewpoint was encapsulated by one 'Floating Voter' in a letter sent directly to the Conservative party Chairman. The author, an industrial worker from Keighley, pleaded with the Conservatives to 'give us a lead'. He urged that, 'If the truth is not so nice, come out with it, if subsidies must be reduced say so, if family allowances must be 'axed', state it, if longer hours must be worker to increase output, say so and you will be respected for it.' Sentiments that many of today's voters might sympathise with.

The avoidance of detail might have been regarded as a sensible choice for a party that had keenly capitalised upon its opposition to post-war austerity. However, the failure to adequately sell an alternative policy to the electorate had serious consequences for the Conservatives, who narrowly lost the 1950 General Election. This defeat was explained by the apparent ambiguity of their manifesto and failure to repudiate Labour scares, or to overturn inherent voter suspicions of their 'real' motives. Following their defeat, the party sought to learn from its mistakes and noted that future policy statements must be both explicit and positive, offering 'practical and constructive' policies to overcome the obstacles faced. Whether or not their modern day counterparts, or indeed their opposition, will learn from the lessons of 1950 remains to be seen. With less than one week to go until polling day, it seems unlikely that any of the major parties will want to break the conspiracy of silence over where the axe may fall.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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