Gordon Brown’s admission that a future government will need to cut public spending marks a significant shift in Labour’s election strategy. The change in strategy not only reflects the economic necessity, but also political realities and the public will.
A recent Populus poll for The Times showed that 81% of the public believes "it is now inevitable that there will be significant cuts in public spending after the next election regardless of the outcome of the election". A YouGov poll for The Sunday Times found that by a ratio of 3 to 1, the public believes "Britain’s deficit should be cut through cuts in public spending (60%) rather than tax increases (21%)".
Labour’s new strategy of recognising cuts are necessary brings them back into the election game. The key issue now for Labour is their credibility as a potential ‘cutting government’. The public will be asking whether a Labour Government could really make the necessary public sector savings, particularly one that has been in power for more than a decade. When it comes to cutting waste, incumbency is a disadvantage. It is also worth remembering that credibility will not just be gained on what the politicians promise. New Labour believed that its success was built on promising not to be a tax raising government. Yet as MORI’s polling showed in 1997, 2001 and 2005 most people did not believe them.
The Conservatives will be pleased that they have won this key battle between ‘Labour investments vs. Tory cuts’, but now the war moves on to somewhat different territory. The Populus/Times poll showed that the Tories had a ten point lead over Labour (38% vs. 28%) on who could be trusted to cut spending in ways ways "that don't harm important public services and that minimise the negative impact on ordinary people". A few years ago the Conservatives would have been delighted by such a polling result. However this lead is smaller than their current voting intentions lead over Labour . This suggests there still remains public uneasiness about the potential Conservative approach to public spending cuts. The battle lines in the next election will focus less on how much is being cut but where the axe will fall.