The Independent View: Half of the public are likely to change their vote after examining the parties’ policies

Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 14.15.40Last night, I found myself in the strange position of introducing a panel of speakers at Birkbeck, including John Curtice and Dr Rosie Campbell, to discuss whether the internet can have an impact on our voting habits. I say strange because just 5 years ago, I had no real interest in politics. I suppose I was like most people, engaged a little around election time but otherwise never really bothered by what went on in Westminster.

But yesterday, the organisation I set up during the 2010 election, Vote for Policies, organised this debate in partnership with The Birkbeck Institute for Social Research, as we released some really interesting data from our users: 50% of people polled on the Vote for Policies website say they are likely to vote for a different party as a result of using the site. A further 63% say they are surprised to discover which party’s policies they support. You can read a full report of the debate here.

Vote for Policies allows users to compare policies on topics like education or the economy, without knowing which party they belong to. 166,000 surveys have been completed since its soft launch on February 19th 2015. 1,111 users completed the poll on which our findings are based.

I set it up because before the last election I came to the frightening realisation that I simply didn’t understand the differences between the parties’ policies, which led me to read all of the manifestos in detail. For the first time, I felt informed and ready to vote – but most people don’t have time to trawl through manifestos, so I wanted to make this process easier for everyone else. You can take the survey here.

I hope the site will let people see beyond spin and personality, and encourage them to vote with a better understanding of the policies on offer. I think it opens up the playing field and its interesting to see which parties lead on which issues. As of Wednesday 25th March, with 166,000 surveys completed, the Liberal Democrats are first on Education and Democracy, but fourth on Health and Economy. The Green Party are third on environment but leading on Crime, and UKIP a strong second on education (after the Liberal Democrats), but fourth on immigration.

Of course, our sample is not representative and it is a self-selecting group that takes the survey. However, when the manifestos are released and we update the site, we will conduct a representative sample survey with polling company TNS which should make for interesting reading.

Above all, my motivation is to see more people experience the process of comparing policies and making an informed decision – I’m not interested in seeing any one party “win” on the site over another. But I am looking forward to seeing what the representative sample uncovers.

Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 14.15.52Laura Perry, one of the 900 people who crowd-funded Vote for Policies, and one of the speakers at last night’s debate said;

There’s a generation of people like me who are interested in politics and want to be well-informed, but need help deciding how to vote. Vote for Policies is perfect for them. It’s a serious alternative to more trivial vote matching quizzes online.

I believe Vote for Policies can engage people who are disillusioned with politics, helping them make up their minds based on the policies rather than anything else.

Vote for Policies is one of a growing number of Voter Advice Applications (VAAs) which allow people to assess which political party matches their views most closely. In 2005 there were two VAAs available in the UK, this year seven are up and running. The number of people using VAAs in the UK is rising steadily, with approximately two million users in 2010, but has yet to reach the proportions of other European countries.

Research shows that in the most recent national elections in Switzerland, Finland and the Netherlands between 30 and 40 percent of voters consulted a VAA before casting their vote. The sites are also popular in Germany, with seven million users in 2009, and in Denmark.

I’m confident that the numbers of people in the UK using a VAA will dramatically increase this year and I’m looking forward to seeing what impact that might have on the outcome of the election.

The Vote for Policies data site is available here. At the moment it allows you to see results for all constituencies and further data will be added shortly.

For further information on the use of Voter Advice Applications see Voting Advice Applications in Europe – The State of the Art by Lorella Cedroni & Diego Garzia, and Voting Advice Applications by Kamila Varadzinová.

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

* Matt Chocqueel-Mangan is the founder of Vote for Policies

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30 Comments

  • Gwynfor Tyley 25th Mar '15 - 8:10pm

    I’ve done survey but what was particularly pleasing (apart from being able to spot the Lib Dem policies) was how all my children enjoyed doing the survey – it is a great way to get younger people to understand that politics isn’t just about the ‘shouty men’ on the telly but that there is a difference between what the parties want to do.

  • Philip Thomas 25th Mar '15 - 10:49pm

    I took the survey and apparently I should be voting for the Green Party. But then, they forgot to included protectionism in the list of Green Party polices…

  • Denis Mollison 25th Mar '15 - 11:04pm

    I found myself inclined to put Green policies top in several areas – Europe, Defence, Immigration.
    It was fairly easy to recognise which policies belonged to which party. One of the attractions of Green policies in this survey is that they tend to be simple and straightforward; many of the other parties, especially Lib Dems, tended to have more complex and thus less immediately appealing policy statements. And that’s not to mention the downright misleading policy statements of some parties …

    My other main issue with Votes for Policies is that if you want your vote to count under FPTP, then it’s more than likely you should vote tactically. Leaders of all parties tend to view this with horror as unethical; but the truth is that any electoral system is to some degree a game, with FPTP at the worst end of the spectrum. And if you’re given just one shot at a game every 5 years, does it really make sense to waste it?

  • Alex Sabine 26th Mar '15 - 1:13am

    Denis – The Green Party’s “short-term” policy proposals include the imposition of tariffs, import controls and capital controls, as a bridgehead to their long-term goal, namely “to redesign trade policy so that it is based on less, not more, international trade” (Green Party economic policy statement, clause EC941).

    Indeed, we are told that they regard radically curtailing the amount of voluntary economic exchange across borders and imposing a siege economy as a matter of principle: “Green policies are based on the principle that we need to reduce to a minimum the overall volume of international trade.” (EC904)

    How are these policies and principles even compatible with EU membership, let alone with their avowed passion for the EU in preference to national parliaments? In respect of three of the ‘four freedoms’ that the single market is founded on – the free movement of goods, services and capital – the Green Party’s policy platform looks much more hostile to the EU than UKIP’s…

    Of course, it may be that these are merely utopian aspirations that even the Greens view as entirely fantastical – a vision of ‘Green land’ perhaps, like Nigel Farage’s thumbnail sketch of the laws that would be obsolete in ‘UKIP land’, but projected onto Europe as a whole. Personally I would rather steer well clear of both Scylla and Charybdis…

  • Philip Thomas 26th Mar '15 - 8:04am

    Scylla and Charybdis- I have been thinking of that as a metaphor for the overall election campaign: Scylla is a Conservative Majority/alliance with the DUP or UKIP: Charybdis is an NOC Parliament with the Scottish Nationalists having a deciding voice.
    We can aim between Scylla and Charybdis – for the glittering prize of another 5 years of coalition with the Tories- or we can aim the other side of Charybdis, for the slightly less attractive reward of coalition with Labour (or even Labour majority government).
    Supporting the Greens is however (unless you live in Brighton) simply to abdicate all responsibility for the election’s outcome. No wonder Russell Brand now says that, when you don’t vote, you should specifically not vote for the Greens 🙂

  • Denis Mollison 26th Mar '15 - 8:57am

    Alex – your more in-depth comments confirm what I was trying to say, that the Votes for Policies presentation tempts us to decide our vote on the basis of simple headlines, when we need to assess the detail (and economics) that lie behind them.

    Having said that, I welcome the Green Party’s questioning of Free Trade. They may well be wanting to go too far, but the current globalisation ideology needs questioning. Ha-Joon Chang in `Economics: The User’s Guide’ points out that today’s rich countries were helped by protectionism in various forms during their development, and later (end of ch.12) sums up: `Where and how much a country should be open … depends on its long-term goals and capabilities .. some cross-border financial flows are essential while too many of them may be harmful …’

    The central point of Chang’s book is that all economic theories are based on essentially political assumptions. With Con/Lab/LD all following very similar economic beliefs, having a few dissident voices in Parliament is to be welcomed, and Caroline Lucas is one of the best of them.

  • I will be voting for the excellent Robin Meltzer the Liberal Democrat candidate for Richmond Park.
    He deserves to be our MP.
    I have been a member of the party since 1970. I have voted Liberal or Liberal Democrat on every possible occasion since I was 18 years old. I have been an activists for over 40 years and was a councillor for 16 years.

    So why, after completing the “vote for policies” on-screen survey, does this organisation say I am “100% Green” ???

    Is it that the Orange Book Contagion has affected our party’s published policies for this General Election to such an extent that they are no longer recognisable as Liberal Democrat?

    Looks like David Steel is right — we need to recharge and reclaim our true values.

  • Matthew Huntbach 26th Mar '15 - 11:48am


    You can take the survey here.

    I clicked on the link, and stopped when it opened up with the message “Which issues are important to you?” and did not include in the list the issue which is most important to me, which is Housing.

    I suspect that had I continued I would have ended up like other Liberal Democrat members here categorised as “Green”. Part of the issue is, I agree with John Tilley, that outsiders now categorise our party as the Nick Clegg Fan Club, and so put down as its policies what the Cleggies want them to be.

    But also the issue is that we have had to be realistic and coherent with our policies, while the Green Party and UKIP have not. So, if we are going to be more cautious because we do want to make sure we actually can implement things, of course we are going to lose out to those who don’t actually bother to work out how they will pay for what they want, or make completely unrealistic assumptions.

    I don’t like the idea of categorising politics in terms of discrete policies, because it doesn’t work like that. Most politics is about achieving balances, the obvious and biggest one being balancing providing good public services with having the tax needed to pay for them. Putting politics in terms of discrete policies misses this, as if having good public services has no connections with having high taxes. So people are looking around for the party which gives them just the mix of policies they say they want and get angry because no party is offering high quality public services and low taxation. Or rather, the unrealistic parties are. The Greens tend not to get questioned on the downside of their attractive sounding polices (and as we know, tends to fall to pieces when they are). UKIP just thinks the answer to everything is to pull out of the EU, which even if it did not have a negative effect on the economy would not save nearly as much state spending as one might suppose from what they say about it. One of the big problems with the Coalition is that people seemed to assume at the start that it would involve the best policies of the LibDems (e.g. full subsidy of universities)and the best policies of the Tories (keeping taxes low) and got angry when that couldn’t happen due to the contradiction between the two.

    I’ve never been impressed by the Green Party, and I sat alongside one of their leading members when he and I were councillors. Not meaning to be rude, but I’ve found them rather lacking in ability to think straight and logical and coherent.

  • Julian Tisi 26th Mar '15 - 1:31pm

    The main problem I have with the concept of voting for policies has already been alluded to by others. Unless people are poliically aware and have thought about issues and challenged ideas, people are more likely to be drawn to the most simplistic and the most generous looking policies around – generous in that people tend to prefer giving money to people rather than taking it from them, when in reality any government has to balance the two. It doesn’t surprise me that the Greens do well on “voting for policies” because their policies are the most simplistic and generous of all. When tested against any modicum of reality, they tend to fall down.

    It’s still a useful site – but it needs to come with a health warning.

  • Alex Sabine 26th Mar '15 - 3:31pm

    Matthew: I agree with you about the limitations of surveys like this which do not link the discrete policies with the whole – although this one does at least group individual policies together as ‘packages’ under each of the topic headings. More importantly, as you say, the financial implications of policies or packages of policies are not spelled out so that trade-offs can be made.

    I also take your point – indeed I have often made it myself – that many, perhaps most, voters would ideally like a mixture of better-funded public services without having to pay for them (either through higher taxes or through user charges/co-payment), and that our political debate is not sophisticated enough to recognise and debate these trade-offs openly.

    To take one example, voters would like more, and better maintained, roads and motorways but aren’t keen on paying for them through (say) higher excise duty or tolls. You might feel this is unreasonable. Doubtless they reckon they already pay more than enough for such benefits through council tax, the vehicle licence and fuel duty. From their travels they might have noticed that we have some of the highest road fuel duties in the world (even after the coalition’s real reductions in recent years) but that our road network is put to shame by many poorer countries, let alone our European neighbours. In a related point, they sometimes suppose that there is, or ought to be, a ‘hypothecation’ of taxes that does not in fact exist: by and large it all goes into the same general pot and is allocated at the discretion of the Treasury.

    Even though you rightly say that “most politics is about achieving balances”, you seem to want voters to make a binary choice: to accept that good public services require high taxation and the sacrifice of more of their post-tax private consumption. But if the choice is presented in that way, you might as well concede most general elections to the Conservative Party. The Labour Party’s recognition of this explains why, since John Smith’s ‘shadow budget’ backfired in 1992, it has consistently sought to evade the tax implications of its spending ambitions. Hence it has felt compelled to assure voters that not only is there no binary choice, but that none of its plans in this election require raising any of the three broad-based taxes – income tax, NI and VAT – that supply the government with the great majority of its revenue.

    When the Labour governments of the 1960s and 1970s were holding back the growth of wages in an attempt to keep inflation in check, and taxing wages more heavily in order to finance an expansion of public services and benefits, Barbara Castle used to try – in vain – to get trade unionists to value the ‘social wage’ that she claimed government was delivering. In those days they still voted Labour because of traditional class-based allegiances, but they did so despite Labour’s tax-raising proclivities not because of them. Nowadays, of course, Labour cannot count on anything like the same core vote, so its long-standing vulnerability on tax is more of a problem than it was in the 1940s to 1980s.

  • Alex Sabine 26th Mar '15 - 3:32pm

    There are also two other assumptions which don’t necessarily hold. One is that higher public spending and better public services are synonymous, whereas in reality how the money is spent is as important as how much. One reason why voters tend to resist higher taxes is that they believe too much of what they already pay is wasted. (I’m not denying the need for reasonable funding, just pointing out that higher inputs don’t necessarily increase the level or quality of outputs, and certainly not in a directly proportional way.)

    The other assumption is that voters want the government to carry on spending all the money it currently does in all the existing areas as well as increasing spending in their favoured areas. In fact there are commitments which the Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems have all made (on overseas aid, for example, or green subsidies or Trident) which voters might well happily discard were they able to trade them off against the alternatives of either forgoing higher spending on their priorities or higher taxes.

    I suppose my conclusion is that while you are right to stress the need to pay for well-funded public services, you are wrong to think that caring about the latter (which voters clearly do) involves a simple binary choice leading to a one-way ‘ratchet’ of higher tax-and-spend. In reality it is more of an ongoing negotiation which moves a couple of degrees one way or the other but seems to hover around a fairly stable proportion of national income.

    It is a nice line to say British voters want Scandinavian levels of public spending but American levels of taxation, but in fact we have always been somewhere in the middle on both. The UK is not a low-tax country by international standards but bang in line with the average of those categorised by the IMF as ‘advanced economies’.

  • Matthew Huntbach 26th Mar '15 - 3:50pm

    Alex Sabine

    Even though you rightly say that “most politics is about achieving balances”, you seem to want voters to make a binary choice: to accept that good public services require high taxation and the sacrifice of more of their post-tax private consumption. But if the choice is presented in that way, you might as well concede most general elections to the Conservative Party.

    Sure, if that’s what people genuinely want when they have been presented with the choices. But I want to make sure people ARE properly presented with the choices.

  • Matthew Huntbach 26th Mar '15 - 4:14pm

    Alex Sabine

    One is that higher public spending and better public services are synonymous,

    Well, this seems to be a line that is very often used to justify very high payments to top workers in the private sector: that you get what you pay for, so if you want quality, you have to give them these high payments to get it.

    whereas in reality how the money is spent is as important as how much.
    One reason why voters tend to resist higher taxes is that they believe too much of what they already pay is wasted.

    Yes, and I think in part this is because they have been misled into thinking this by the loud voices in society which have a vested interest in pushing that line. It is clear to me that there are very strong demographic factor pushing public spending up, so that if people want to continue with the level of service that is state funded now, they need to accept more tax. This ought to be a key issue in political discussion, but it isn’t. Similar with university education – if you want full state subsidy of universities, and the number of people going to universities greatly increases, you’re going to have to face extra taxation. But the crunch was hit because no-one put it in those terms.

    For my entire adult life, and I’m in my mid 50s now, we have had governments which have insisted that there is waste in public services, so easy cuts that can be made, and they’ve just passed it down to lower levels to make those cuts. Just maybe there aren’t easy cuts now any more. In fact from my own knowledge and contacts many of the cuts that have been made in the past have had long term effects resulting in increased expenditure now.

  • Matthew Huntbach 26th Mar '15 - 4:33pm

    Alex Sabine

    It is a nice line to say British voters want Scandinavian levels of public spending but American levels of taxation, but in fact we have always been somewhere in the middle on both.

    Well, that’s fine too, so long as people have been given a clear and honest choice, and have chosen what they wanted. Now I think the problem is that people are not being given a clear choice. The political left bangs on about how bad the “cuts” are when it is in opposition, but is too scared to admit the cuts are necessary to keep taxes down, and so is stuck when it does get into power. Last time it tried to square the circle by using PFI, well, that was a classic example of a short term measure that has long term high cost consequences. Plus bringing in cheap staff from overseas as that mens we don’t have to shell out on training, and that can be justified as nice and lefty because you must be a right-wing racist to object. Of course, that also has long-term consequences, and is not sustainable over generations. The political right goes on about how good it is to cuts taxes and how bad it is to raise them, but doesn’t want to admit that keeping taxes low inevitably means a run-down of public services.

    So, mostly people carry in voting under the impression that taxes can be kept low and public services kept high, and when that doesn’t happen because it can’t, blame the politicians for being bad people for not being able to achieve the impossible.

    If the people of this country genuinely want to be in the middle in terms of taxation, then they are going to have to accept that the next thing that goes is the NHS. We will have to be like other countries, where health services are paid for partly privately and it is expected that most people will have some sort of top-up private insurance, with the state just providing back-up for hard cases and the destitute.

  • Alex Sabine 26th Mar '15 - 5:45pm

    Matthew: You make a fair point that high pay in the private sector is often justified on the basis that, so to speak, “if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys”. Sometimes there will be a genuine justification for high pay, and sometimes these arguments are largely self-serving. In the public sector, of course, rigid centralised pay bargaining makes it difficult to vary pay according to either performance (however defined) or conditions in the local/regional labour market.

    For businesses operating in competitive markets there are significant pressures to keep a lid on their overheads including pay. One of the reasons managers and employees might be paid more is if they deliver productivity improvements. These are easier to achieve in manufacturing than in service industries, but service businesses still have to find them all the time if they want to prosper. The public sector cannot be exempt from such pressures if it is to continue to deliver even the existing level of service, let alone improvements – given the demographic pressures that you point out.

    As Vince Cable argued back in 2009: “The essential point is the acceptance, only tenuously supported by this government, that what matters is the outcome of public spending (and public satisfaction), not the amount spent… There is much dissatisfaction that the rapid growth of public spending has not produced a commensurate improvement in health outcomes or patient satisfaction.”

    He rightly went on to say that a distinction should be made between the vague, all-purpose political slogan of ‘efficiency savings’ and the pursuit of higher labour productivity, more cost-effective procurement and so on. To insist the public sector is simply incapable of delivering these is a counsel of despair. It will not lead to greater public acceptance of higher taxes but simply to more frustration with the politicians and managers who are responsible for spending money on taxpayers’ behalf.

    This isn’t an either/or. There needs to be proper funding of core public services and improved service delivery, productivity and procurement. But it also likely that the shape of the state – what government spends money on rather than how much – will continue to change and evolve in order to reconcile the appetite/need for higher spending in some areas with the appetite/need to keep moderate levels of overall taxation. We have already seen this in recent decades with the changing proportions of the government budget devoted to defence or industrial policy (down) versus healthcare and pensions (up).

    Also, demographic pressures do not simply have to be accommodated by means of higher spending: where pensions are concerned, for example, increases in life expectancy have rightly (though belatedly) led to an increase in the state pension age, and these are likely to be linked by default in future to contain spending pressures. Likewise the big increase in student numbers has prompted the switch from tax financing to graduate financing. In future I suspect major extensions to the trunk road or motorway network will be funded by tolls or other user charges, though most existing roads may remain ‘free at the point of use’. Different solutions will be appropriate for different types of public services – but I doubt a big increase in the tax burden will be the route future governments will take, or be able to gain a mandate for.

    You are right that these choices should be put squarely on the table, however, and there is certainly a place for a party that wants to make the higher tax argument. Perhaps the Lib Dems under new management post-2015? 😉

  • Matthew Huntbach 27th Mar '15 - 8:10am

    Alex Sabine

    Different solutions will be appropriate for different types of public services – but I doubt a big increase in the tax burden will be the route future governments will take, or be able to gain a mandate for.

    If people are not willing to give the government the mandate to collect taxes necessary to pay for things they should stop getting angry when they don’t get those things. So why have people got so angry about tuition fees?

    If people aren’t willing to give government the mandate to raise enough money so that all reasonable health care is available to everyone without direct charge, then they will have to pay for it themselves. Similar with pensions, if you don’t want to pay the taxes for a reasonable level of state pension, you have to pay more for private pensions. The point is, you still have to pay for it, one way or another.

    You are putting it that somehow people are agreeing to this gradual shift in the way things are paid for, that they consciously don’t want what you call the “Scandinavian” model. I think you are wrong. I don’t think it has been put honestly to the people of this country, and so I don’t think it has the mandate you claim. Rather, people have been pumped with one-sided propaganda pushing one aspect of it, lower taxes, and nothing which explains what this must be balanced by. They are then shocked and angry at the other side appearing, but they just aren’t making the link. I blame both left and right in politics for this. The right control the propaganda machine we call “newspapers”, but the left also has been incompetent and arrogant, failing to build the active large scale support that an effective left needs to challenge what the right can buy through its money in term of pushing its ideas.

    Well, I joined the Liberal Party because it seemed to offer the sort of effective left I feel this country needs, or at least had the capacity to do so. Regrettably, its successor doesn’t seem to think that’s its role any more, and with people who think like you in charge seems to think it’s a “me too” to the political right dominance. It doesn’t seem to be concerned with building a true democratic movement, so that the people are actively involved in discussion and choice about the future of this country, and so confident that the politicians at the top have their interests at heart. No, as we can see, the Liberal Democrats from the top are being pushed as the “Nick Clegg Fan Club”. It is a return to aristocracy, politics is seen as about a bunch of aristocrats at the top, maybe vaguely distinguished with “Whig” and “Tory” labels, but it’s just about a fairly token choice between which aristocrat you have. Business is run by a remote and closed class, the City financiers, another bunch of aristocrats.

    If it was moving this way because that’s what people really want, as you claim, then there wouldn’t be so much anger and sense of alienation about it. To me, that’s the deeper problem. People haven’t really given a mandate for all this, but they lack the capacity and even the language to be able to think through what is happening. I know this because I have great difficulty in even talking through the concepts of liberal democracy, of political parties primarily as associations for representation choosing people from their ranks as candidates and promoting them so that politics is not aristocratic, of the elected chamber as a forum where the representatives agree on the compromises with the widest support. When one tries to put things in these terms, even here where contributors might be expected to have the background and knowledge to appreciate it, it often seems like one is speaking a foreign language. It is just taken for granted, for example, that the Liberal Democrats are the Nick Clegg Fan Club. People have great difficulty in even comprehending how it could be something different, like, for example a network of community activists.

    In some ways, the tuition fees situation crystallises all this. I agree with you, it is the natural consequence of what you say people have given a mandate to: the gradual running down of state support for things because they are not willing to agree to the taxes necessary to pay for that state support. I even agree with you, and have argued this from the start, that it’s not something people should get that worked up about, because in the end what we have come up with means much the same people paying much the same amounts of money. The Liberal Democrats, having failed to win anything like the support they needed to push their original line with its high tax requirements did their best to make sure this new line, fitting in with the people supporting a lower tax party, was as fair as can be, stopping no-one from getting university education. That’s the way democracy works, if you cannot get your ideal, work towards the best compromise.

    But who else sees it like this? I’ve tried and failed to argue it that way. Instead, people are using this thing to argue for the destruction of the Liberal Democrats. People are using it to argue that democracy has failed, and are either switching off altogether or turning to ugly and unworkable alternatives. I fear what could happen if this carries on.

  • Denis Mollison 27th Mar '15 - 8:52am

    Je suis Matthew

  • Matthew Huntbach 27th Mar '15 - 9:22am

    Alex Sabine

    He rightly went on to say that a distinction should be made between the vague, all-purpose political slogan of ‘efficiency savings’ and the pursuit of higher labour productivity, more cost-effective procurement and so on. To insist the public sector is simply incapable of delivering these is a counsel of despair.

    This is a ridiculous point. I am certainly not saying we should not try to make efficiency savings in public services where we can. I am arguing against the line that we can just wave our hands and say “oh, there must be efficiency savings that can be made. We at the top don’t know what they are, so we’ll just cut the budget, and you lower down work out what they are”, and this is enough to cover the huge demographic pressures that ought to be at the centre of political discussion. This is especially so when this line has been pushed from the top continuously since the 1970s. Doesn’t it ever occur to people like you that just perhaps there aren’t big efficiency savings that can easily be made now?

    I can give many examples from my own knowledge and contacts of the reverse: desperate attempt to meet this year’s budget cuts leading to things that will have long-term costly consequences. If you are told “make cuts”, and find you can do so in a way that passes big costs on to someone else, well, that’s what you’ll do, isn’t it? To me, that’s a big reason why governments try to make cuts, and yet find state expenditure stubbornly refusing to fall as a proportion of GDP. So many cuts made now just led to firefighting expenditure elsewhere. Then people like you use this to argue that we aren’t really making cuts, so we must just make more cuts. It’s a vicious circle.

    You talk about “cost effective procurement”. I’ve seen what this really means. A bunch of management consultants comes along, charges a big fat fee and says “You can save money by having centralised procurement, buying in bulk, economy of scale” etc. Then some time later a bunch of management consultants comes along, charges a big fat fee and says “You can save money by having decentralised procurement, more flexible, uses local knowledge” etc. I saw this cycle when I was a councillor, and I’ve seen it where I work as well.

  • Alex Sabine 27th Mar '15 - 2:11pm

    @ Matthew
    “If people are not willing to give the government the mandate to collect taxes necessary to pay for things they should stop getting angry when they don’t get those things.”

    You have said yourself that people don’t always make the connection between benefits they are accustomed to getting and the means of paying for them. Even post-crisis and in a more austere fiscal context, politicians often cultivate the impression that they are dispensing free goods, which of course is completely misleading. Gordon Brown was a particularly egregious offender, but politicians from all parties are guilty of it. (That said, I think there are limits to the public’s naivety/gullibility on this and they are willing to make choices and trade-offs when these are properly set out. I don’t buy this kind of ‘false consciousness’ argument you seem to be making that voters don’t mean what they say and wouldn’t vote the way they do if only they understood the realities.)

    Having diagnosed this problem, you then make the leap to concluding that if only people were educated to understand the connection, they would surely support higher taxes to fund what you see as an inevitable rising trajectory of public spending as a share of national income. I’ve pointed out that is precious little evidence for this based on people’s actual voting behaviour, survey evidence and so on – for there have been occasions when an explicit connection is made.

    Political parties are free to test this hypothesis if they think it is a winning argument. The last time a version of it was tried at a general election was Labour’s platform in 1992, although even then they felt it necessary to emphasise that higher taxes would only have to be paid by those on above-average earnings. They didn’t dare propose a rise in the basic rate of income tax, for example. But the threat of a large NI hike for those on about 1.5 times the average salary was enough to sink their election hopes.

    I should stress that I am not arguing that there is one-way traffic in the other direction, that voters will always choose lower taxes and lower spending. Clearly there are times when they take a different view on the balance of priorities. But nonetheless there is a ‘tax constraint’ imposed by the electorate, not by the financial markets (which don’t necessarily make a distinction in terms of creditworthiness between a government that balances the budget at 30% of GDP and another that does so 50%), the right-wing press or some other bogeyman.

    In the UK, over a long period, this constraint has been a little over one-third of national income in total tax and NI contributions with a varying amount of additional revenue coming from things like North Sea oil. Governments have some freedom of manoeuvre in terms of raising the tax burden when the starting point is unusually low, typically when the budget is in heavy deficit following a recession. But they soon hit the tax constraint and either moderate their spending or start borrowing on a large scale. In many ways an ongoing or rising budget deficit (of the sort that Labour ran in favourable economic conditions in 2002-07) is a tell-tale symptom of a government that has exhausted the willingness of the electorate to pay higher taxes.

  • Alex Sabine 27th Mar '15 - 2:11pm

    As I say, there is nothing to stop a party that wishes to test the hypothesis that the public will back a tax-and-spend agenda. It might be that Labour will scrape over the line at this election partly based on an expectation that it will spend more than Tories and tax the rich more to pay for it. But if so this will be because Labour have pulled off a remarkable conjuring trick in convincing voters that a mansion tax, a 50p top income tax rate and a bankers’ bonus tax will raise the kind of sums needed to tackle the deficit and pay for its spending commitments. It will certainly not be because they have persuaded large numbers of voters that they themselves will have to stump p more; on the contrary, the whole basis of their prospectus (and that of the Lib Dems for that matter) is that only a tiny proportion of the population will be expected to pay more, and that the tax base should be further narrowed.

    You might deplore this as political cowardice; but Labour could hardly rail about the cost of living and then set out plans to increase the three broad-based taxes that are the big ‘earners’ gor the Treasury (income tax, NI and VAT) and bear most heavily on voters’ living standards. But cowardly or not, it shows that your assessment of the public appetite for higher taxes is not shared by any significant British political party with the possible exception of the Greens (although their tax policies are so flaky that it is hard to tell) – not by the Tories or UKIP (obviously), not by Labour, not by the Lib Dems, emphatically not by the SNP (whose largesse is based on borrowing more and extorting moneys from England, not asking Scottish taxpayers to pay more)… 

    As I suggested earlier, that does not mean there is no reasonable case that could be made along the lines you have set out. I might not agree with the premise or the conclusions, but it deserves a proper hearing as you say. Maybe we will see such an argument emerge from the Lib Dems under new leadership in the next parliament, should that eventuality arise; but personally I doubt it, even if (perhaps especially if) that leader is Tim Farron.

  • Matthew Huntbach 27th Mar '15 - 3:17pm

    Alex Sabine

    Having diagnosed this problem, you then make the leap to concluding that if only people were educated to understand the connection, they would surely support higher taxes to fund what you see as an inevitable rising trajectory of public spending as a share of national income. I’ve pointed out that is precious little evidence for this based on people’s actual voting behaviour, survey evidence and so on

    There’s precious little evidence that people would support the alternative, which is scrapping the NHS.

  • Alex Sabine 27th Mar '15 - 4:38pm

    @ Matthew: 
    “To me, that’s a big reason why governments try to make cuts, and yet find state expenditure stubbornly refusing to fall as a proportion of GDP. So many cuts made now just lead to firefighting expenditure elsewhere.”

    Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story, Matthew. There have been a number of periods in which governments of various political colours have reduced expenditure as a proportion of GDP. That goal is eminently achievable. Conservative Chancellors did it for much of the 1950s, Roy Jenkins did it in the late 1960s, Denis Healey in the late 1970s, Nigel Lawson in the 1980s, Ken Clarke in the mid-to-late 1990s, and Gordon Brown in his first three years as Chancellor.

    One of the myths on the left and the right is that this government has failed to hit its original spending plans. In fact in cash terms it has spent almost exactly what it set out to do in June 2010 – Total Managed Expenditure is forecast to come in at £737.1 billion this year compared to £737.5 billion pencilled-in in George Osborne’s first Budget – and government departments have consistently stayed within their allocations. And as a proportion of GDP public expenditure has come down from 45.7% to 40.7%.

    “Then people like you use this to argue that we aren’t really making cuts, so we just make more cuts. It’s a vicious circle.”

    More Aunt Sallys… I haven’t argued at any stage that no cuts have been made under this government, or that spending control has been poor. What I have tried to do is draw attention to the actual figures, and keep a sense of perspective: the cuts to total public expenditure have been – and were always planned to be – modest, less than 1% per year in real terms. Because of decisions that were made about ring-fencing the NHS, sharply increasing overseas aid and increasing state pension spending – and because of higher debt service costs due to the big rise the debt stock – the cuts to ‘unprotected’ areas of public spending have been much more severe. Therefore it can be argued both that the cuts have been modest and that they have been substantial.

    However, your claim that public spending simply can’t be tamed is not borne out by the facts. Actually cutting spending is always going to be tough, and it is only the scale of our deficit since 2009 that has made it necessary. But, whatever your feelings about that, it has been achieved. The more modest goal of reducing spending as a proportion of GDP, though still a challenge, is clearly easier to accomplish than cutting the volume of money spent: it allows spending to grow, albeit at a slower rate than national income. Any prospective government will be looking to do this in the next parliament.

    The one thing that is clear is that there are always upward pressures on public spending – not just from demographics, but from the proliferation of interest-group privileges – and that any government that wishes even to hold it steady as a share of GDP needs to hold those pressures in check. If it simply accommodated all these pressures spending would soon spiral out of control (the classic case of this is the period between the February and October general elections in 1974).

  • Alex Sabine 27th Mar '15 - 5:12pm

    On the demographics point, I gave you an example of how it can be offset with regard to the cost of the state pension: by creating an automatic link between increases in longevity and the state pension age. But over and above this, yes I do think people will increasingly expect to augment the state pension with private provision. This has been one of the principal things Steve Webb has being trying to lay the foundation for in government. Are you against this goal?

    The sad truth is that the UK had a good system of occupational pensions in the 1990s, before a number of developments including Gordon Brown’s tax raid in 1997 caused it to unravel. The coalition has done a number of things to try to rebuild it, including the new system of auto-enrolment into workplace pensions, making ISAs more generous etc. Pensions is a classic area where all the main parties realise there will have to be a decreasing reliance on the public purse and greater private provision if people are to have the retirement incomes they aspire to. There is no way working-age taxpayers are going to be prepared to bridge this gap.

    As far as the impact of demographics on the NHS, according to research by the IFS you need to increase spending by 0.7% per year in order to offset the growing population (ie to keep real spending per person constant) and a further 0.5% to offset the changing age structure. There are other upward demand pressures, and there also productivity improvements envisaged in Simon Stevens’s plan that would partially offset the impact of the cost pressures. In the long run keeping NHS spending stable as a proportion of national income would permit real increases of perhaps 2.5% per year compared to the historical average of 3.8% – so a decision will indeed need to be made about priorities within the total spending envelope, and about how healthcare (including prevention and also social care) can be improved.

    But your version of TINA (my way or scrap the NHS) does seem a wee bit reductionist. It is politics as caricature.

  • Alex Sabine 27th Mar '15 - 6:59pm

    @ Matthew
    “Why have people got so angry about tuition fees?”

    Are you sure that voters in general are “so angry” about tuition fees? The Lib Dems have certainly taken a pasting on this issue; people who voted Lib Dem in 2010 evidently feel betrayed by the broken pledge. But I think you may be confusing anger at the Lib Dems’ U-turn (which I happen to agree with you is overdone, but a lot of 2010 Lib Dem voters clearly don’t agree with us) with attitudes to the policy itself among the general public.

    According to the latest NatCen/British Social Attitudes survey, support for tuition fees is little changed since 2010 despite the trebling of fees.

    The survey’s wider findings debunk this idea that voters are up in arms about cuts and think they are ravaging public services. A majority of the 2,878 people surveyed said they would not reverse cuts made by the coalition. The report says: “There has been no more than a marginal shift in favour of more spending – from 32% in 2010 to 37% in 2014, still far below the proportion that was of that view in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s.”

    Satisfaction with the NHS is almost identical to what it was in 2009.

    And Rachel Ormston, one of the report’s authors, concluded: “Despite the fact that the public has gone off the notion of coalition government, it has seemingly accepted many of the coalition’s big reforms. In spite of the government’s narrative of austerity, or perhaps because of it, NHS satisfaction is back up, there is broad acceptance of tuition fees, and at least some cuts to benefits are popular.”

    Indeed, support for the coalition’s welfare curbs is particularly striking. 73% of those surveyed (and two-thirds of Labour supporters) supported the household benefits cap, while only 30% support higher benefit spending compared to 61% back in 1989. This figure has barely budged from the 27% who supported higher welfare spending in 2009, despite the caps and tighter conditionality the coalition has introduced. NatCen notes: “…While the long-term decline in support for further welfare spending may have stopped, it has not reversed in response to either the tough economic climate or tighter government policies on benefits.”

    The one area where public support for higher spending remains strong is pensions, which the coalition has assiduously protected from cuts.

    The report concludes: “The Britain of 2010 was doubtful about increasing public expenditure, tough on welfare, accepting of the principle of tuition fees, sceptical about Europe and distrustful of politics and politicians. Britain today looks much the same. But far from suggesting that the last five years have left little imprint, this stability suggests that what five years ago might still have been regarded as exceptional trends are in fact now part of the fabric of British public opinion. As such, they are trends of which the next government will have to take due notice.”

    There is a tendency for all political parties to assume that the attitudes of activists and the people they associate with are representative of the wider public; but often they are echo chambers. The findings of this and other surveys are a useful corrective to such assumptions.

  • @Alex Sabine
    “According to the latest NatCen/British Social Attitudes survey, support for tuition fees is little changed since 2010 despite the trebling of fees.”

    Perhaps, but polling after Labour’s recent announcement showed that 49% backed it, with only 31% against. This suggests that though voters in general are comfortable with the concept of tuition fees, they (or at least most who have an opinion) feel that the current levels are unfair.

  • Alex Sabine 27th Mar '15 - 9:28pm

    Stuart:  I’m not sure it says anything about perceptions of fairness. What it says is that people are receptive to straightforward ‘retail offers’, especially when the reality that it will largely benefit better-off graduates rather than hard-up students has not yet sunk in.

    The real question for Labour will be whether it swings many votes in their favour. Analysis by Steve Fisher from Trinity College, Oxford suggests not. He points out that in December, before Labour’s new tuition fee policy was announced, there was “relatively little variation in support for fee reduction by socio-demographics or by past or current vote intention” – whereas since the announcement support and opposition has become more sharply divided along party lines. 

    Fisher writes: “This seems to be a classic example of policy evaluations depending on party attributions. Plenty of Tories liked the policy before it was associated with the Labour party but not any more. Conversely Labour supporters like it more when told the policy comes from their party.”

    The policy is much more popular with those already planning to vote Labour than with other groups that Labour needs to win over to increase its vote share. Moreover: “Labour have already benefited considerably from students deserting the Liberal Democrats following the breach of their 2010 pledge on tuition fees. It is not clear there is much scope for them to benefit further on the issue.”

    Another interesting finding from the YouGov polling is that, insofar as voters think tuition fees are too high, it is not that they think there should be more tax financing but rather that universities are over-charging for the courses and service they provide. When asked “would you support or oppose reducing the level of tuition fees if it meant that universities would receive less money?”, they support that proposition by 54% to 21%. They believe the current level of fees “is not value for money – the standard of education and the wages graduates earn are not enough to warrant the cost”. This suggests they may support lower fees in the belief that universities don’t need as much money, rather than that taxpayers should be coughing up more.

    All in all, I think the salience of this issue is too low, and public opinion too ambiguous, to suggest that it will be any kind of electoral game-changer. The one party that would be well advised to say as little as possible on the subject, and avoid any flashy commitments, is probably the Lib Dems…

  • @Alex
    “I’m not sure it says anything about perceptions of fairness. What it says is that people are receptive to straightforward ‘retail offers’, especially when the reality that it will largely benefit better-off graduates rather than hard-up students has not yet sunk in.”

    If the people are so easily taken in, should we take any notice of any of these polls at all, including the ones you quoted earlier?

    “All in all, I think the salience of this issue is too low, and public opinion too ambiguous, to suggest that it will be any kind of electoral game-changer.”

    I don’t think anyone’s really suggesting that it will be a game-changer. I agree that tuition fees have probably always been fairly low on the public’s priority list (which is one of the reason’s I’ve always rejected the claim made by some Lib Dems that the Tories were hell bent on forcing through trebled-fees and there was no way of bargaining with them).

    On the other hand, in an election of such ultra-fine margins as this one, even a relatively unimportant issue has the potential to be a game-changer…

  • @ Stuart
    “If the people are so easily taken in, should we take any notice of any of these polls at all, including the ones you quoted earlier?”

    I think there is a difference between polls tracking attitudes to broad policy questions that have varied little (even in the precise wording, let alone the issues) over a long period – questions like whether taxes and public spending should be higher or lower, whether the NHS is getting better or worse etc – and snapshot responses to a new policy just unveiled by the Labour Party. I suspect the more the policy is disseminated the more people will take on board who exactly will benefit from it… but I could be wrong, we’ll see.

    “I agree that tuition fees have probably always been fairly low on the public’s priority list (which is one of the reasons I’ve always rejected the claim made by some Lib Dems that the Tories were hell bent on forcing through trebled fees and there was no way of bargaining with them).”

    I think you are right to be sceptical about such wriggling by Lib Dems – but not quite for the reason you suggest. The Tories (who, let’s remember, supported scrapping fees under Michael Howard before David Cameron changed the policy) were not “hell-bent” on forcing through a trebling of fees because they thought it was popular with their supporters or an electorally salient issue, but because the fiscal consolidation plan the coalition had signed up to entailed shaving several billion pounds off the (unprotected) Business Department’s budget. The obvious way of achieving that was to slash the HEFCE grant and make up the difference with higher fees broadly on the lines of the Browne review commissioned by Labour. Vince Cable backed higher fees because he had always questioned Lib Dem party policy on HE and preferred to defend his departmental turf on other fronts.

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