Learning to live with austerity

After five years of cuts in local government, policing and Whitehall, with plenty more to come, how are public perceptions holding up? They are shifting – but in a way that has at least as much good as bad news for the Chancellor.

In late 2015 we updated trends from 2012 – and the attention-grabbing findings at first glance seem very worrying for the government.

There has been a huge increase in concern about the future of the NHS: now 55% expect health services to get worse over the next five years, the highest we’ve ever recorded, nearly twice the level we measured in the early 2000s.

This is reflected in views of individual health services: the proportions saying GPs, hospitals and care for the elderly have got worse are all up on two years ago.

Perceptions of the police service have also taken a significant hit: now 39% think policing has got worse, much higher than a couple of years ago – and again expectations of future change are the most negative that we’ve measured.

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But views of other services are holding up: it’s true that there are more negative attitudes towards changes in schools in recent years, and a similar pattern for a whole range of local authority services – but just as many (and often more) people think these services have improved rather than got worse in recent years.

Views of welfare cuts are also shifting away from the government, with more thinking they’ve gone too far, and fewer thinking they’ve been necessary – but not decisively so. Still less than half think the cuts have gone too far, and only 34% think that the cuts have not been necessary.

But most telling, and encouraging for the government’s plan, is that the population as a whole seem much less concerned about the cuts than they were. Now 76% say they haven’t really been affected by the cuts themselves, with four in ten saying they haven’t been affected at all. This is a massive swing from 2012, when only 10% said they hadn’t been affected at all.

And there’s been a similar shift in concern about the future impact of cuts: now over half are not concerned, when it was only a third in 2012.

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So why is this happening – why are we more worried about the particular, but less concerned about the whole?

First, the impact of the cuts are concentrated on a relatively small proportion of the population1http://sticerd.lse.ac.uk/dps/case/spcc/RR04.pdf – most people just don’t have that much direct interaction with most services on a day-to-day basis. The proposed cut in tax credits may affect more, but it has yet to become reality.

But secondly, shifting expectations are also likely to be playing a part. We asked people what percentage of planned cuts to government spending had been made, updating a trend from 2012. Back then people said they thought we were 40% through the cuts – but now we think we’ve only made 28% of planned cuts. It’s actually pretty much impossible to say whether these figures are correct or not, as the context and government plans keep shifting – in that sense it’s an unfair question.

But it is still a clear indication that many of us may be getting used to the idea of semi-permanent austerity: the government has succeeded in setting a narrative for the majority of the public that we need continuing cuts to balance the budget. If that means services can do less, we have to live with that.

Of course, more positively, a number of services have found ways to do more with less – or at least to focus on doing what’s really important.

So the government is likely to take a lot of courage from this.

The biggest risk they face is the NHS. It almost always feels like the NHS is close to tipping into disaster (the majority of the public always agree it is in “crisis”), but these types of shifts should ring alarm bells. The explanations for increased public nervousness will be varied, from direct experience of a more constrained service, high profile protests by health professionals and press coverage of the looming NHS deficit – but also partly from the government’s own actions in ‘shining a light’ on short-comings. The very real funding gaps need to be filled somehow.

Policing is also an interesting area. As long as crime is decreasing, there is a less clear cut argument for the Chief Constables, the Home Office and others to make in protecting funding: we have relatively little contact with the police, compared with health services, so the link to outcomes and how we feel is less clear. But again we know from previous research that tipping points can come quickly – and another question on changes in spending shows that the public are likely to lay blame squarely with the government if crime rates rise or they feel less secure.

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This is because we think the biggest drop in public spending is actually in policing – we think it’s down 9%. It’s actually been cut much more, by 20%, but, still, more of the public think of this as a government cut than with any other service.

But we’re generally very shaky on the facts of government spending changes. We think that spending on pensions has decreased by 2% in the last five years, when it’s actually increased by 13%. In contrast, we think education spending is up 1%, when it’s actually down 13%. Most distressingly for the government, we think health spending is down 3% when it’s up 4%!

As is often the case, perceptions do not reflect reality (just take a look at my colleague Suzanne Hall’s article on p42) – but they are what determine how people feel, and this has clear political consequences. For now, the government will be pretty happy.

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