Cuts, public opinion and the movement

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By Alex Snowdon
The latest polling on public attitudes to cuts is available. Usefully, there is also a polling tracker and assessment of how attitudes have evolved since 2010. This allows us to grasp the direction of travel in people’s attitudes to austerity (the graph, left, is one illustration of trends).
There has been a clear shift in the direction of support for cuts, compared to a year or so ago after the impact of Osborne’s famous omnishambles budget in spring 2012.
The direction is clear, but it needs to be kept in perspective – the changes in opinion are not huge. I have seen a few expressions of apocalyptic doom and gloom in the blogosphere and on social media, but that is an exaggerated reaction. The shift is not so drastic that we should feel hopeless – and the trends, I believe, are reversible.
The findings
So what does the polling tell us? Let’s make a direct comparison between the latest figures and exactly one year ago.
30% think cuts are being implemented fairly and 55% think they are unfair.
36% think the coalition government is managing the economy well and 55% think it is doing so badly. A year ago it was 27% well and 66% badly.
39% think cuts are good for the economy and 44% think they are bad for the economy. A year ago 31%said good and 52% said bad.
41% think that cuts are either too shallow or about right., while 42% think they are too deep. A year ago38% said too shallow or about right and 45% said too deep.
42% think cuts are being made too slowly or at the right pace, while 43% think they are too fast. A year ago 39% said too slow or about right and 48% said too fast.
57% think the cuts are necessary and 29% think they are unnecessary. A year ago 55% said necessary and 31% said unnecessary.
The latest results are no aberration – they tally with YouGov’s other polls in the last few months. It is a trend, not a blip (the graphs in the link above illustrate this).
What the polling tells us
Three general points are worth noting here. Firstly, there is a shift in the direction of pro-austerity opinion. Secondly, while these shifts are unmistakable they are not especially big.
Thirdly, despite this tipping of the balance there are high proportions on the side of anti-cuts opinion, e.g. it’s still the case that more people think cuts are bad for the economy than think they are good for the economy, while there are clear majorities saying cuts are being implemented unfairly and the government is managing the economy badly. These points are a vital corrective to anyone interpreting the polling as evidence of widespread public backing for austerity.
It’s also important to keep the findings on whether the cuts are necessary/unnecessary in perspective. There has always been a majority saying the cuts are necessary. Some people think they are unfair, perhaps generally bad for the economy, but still say they are necessary because they simply don’t see any alternative to them being articulated.
The notion that there is no alternative to austerity is – let’s not forget – the dominant political idea of our times, subscribed to by almost everyone in Westminster and the entire mainstream media. Polls have consistently (since 2011) found that somewhere between 26% and 35% regard cuts as unnecessary – a fairly stable body of opinion.
Shifting public opinion
The findings illustrate why it is entirely wrong to suggest that public opinion will turn against austerity the more its impact is felt. In fact there is no such correlation. It’s an idea I’ve heard casually expressed many times since 2010 – “people just haven’t felt the impact of cuts yet, but when they will they will all turn against them” and such like.
What matters is politics. Do people feel that austerity is being contested, that there is an alternative? If not then many people are vulnerable to pro-cuts arguments, regardless of the damaging effect austerity is having on them and on people they know. In particular there is the tendency to view austerity as a painful necessity.
When I posted a few of my observations on Facebook, Alan Gibbons chipped in with this useful comment:

‘People simultaneously think the cuts are wrong, unfair but inevitable. That reflects a sense of resignation and also of inability to change anything. There has to be some idea that another way is possible. The relative weakness of the Left and the capitulation of New Labour to the austerity agenda largely explains the current malaise, I think.’

The capitulation of Labour’s leadership to austerity is certainly a factor in these findings. So is the generally low level of union mobilisation since the co-ordinated national pensions strike on 30 November 2011. Our best hope of mobilising and articulating an alternative to the whole rotten austerity project is the People’s Assembly. It is broad, principled and nationwide, with the commitment to a ‘No Cuts’ position that we need to counter the government.
Mobilising the opposition
The People’s Assembly is the only thing that successfully unites politics and action – that’s what we need above all. We have to simultaneously articulate an alternative and build bigger mobilisations against cuts (which of course expands the space we have to present alternatives). People will increasingly move against cuts when two closely connected things happen: when they are convinced there are alternatives, and when they feel there’s a movement challenging austerity in a serious way.
Let’s not forget that the battle for public opinion is not the ultimate aim of anyone in the anti-cuts movement. The point is to utilise opposition to cuts to build a movement that can break austerity. The audience is certainly there: not only do roughly 3 in 10 of people think cuts are unnecessary, but there are many people beyond that minority who can support – and be involved in – particular campaigns and mobilisations.
The national demonstration for the NHS on 29 September can mobilise tens of thousands, who in turn represent the views of millions. If the protest is huge it can develop some of the momentum  we need. It can feed the feeling that austerity can be rejected and fought.
Together with the growth of local People’s Assemblies everywhere – combining a positive, alternative anti-cuts agenda with anti-cuts protests – it can play a part in turning the tide. We need a national movement that is unified, coherent and combative.
We will require far more action in future – including civil disobedience on 5 November, national demonstrations and co-ordinated strike action – but the most pressing priorities are a massive turnout in Manchester on 29 September and the creation of People’s Assemblies in every area.

Register today for the North East Peoples Assembly with Owen Jones and Mark Steel – Saturday 14th September, Northern Stage – Newcastle: http://nepeoplesassembly.eventbrite.co.uk/

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About farmerg13

22, Media Production Graduate (Sunderland Uni) from Hebburn, South Tyneside. North East Peoples Assembly and Coalition of Resistance Media & Communications Officer. Active in Hebburn South Labour Party. Admin of this blog, opinionated is putting it mildly. NUFC fan. Follow me @farmerg13
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