How can political leaders persuade the public to accept more cuts?
Presentation has been vital for the government’s efforts to rally support for austerity – but public enthusiasm is on the wane. Perhaps local councils can smooth the way for the next wave of cuts
Among the government’s presentational achievements, the biggest by far has been its ability to bring the UK population with it on a journey of austerity and cuts. According to recent polling from ICM, 39% of voters say the prime minister and the chancellor are the team they would most trust “to manage the economy properly”, compared with just 19% who say they would trust the Labour team. To be in this position, after a tough four years that have seen major spending reductions and significant changes to benefits and welfare, is no mean feat.
That political triumph has hinged first and foremost on expectation management.
Following the financial crash, voters were under few illusions that whoever occupied the Treasury in 2010 would be striking through expenditure with a red pen. But now, the appetite for cuts is on the wane. Populus polling for the Financial Times has found only two in five voters believe that further austerity will be needed in the next five years. With another £30 billion of cuts to be asked for in the next spending round, expectations are falling out of kilter with reality. And while most people think that deficit reduction can be achieved by reducing government waste, bodies such as the Local Government Association – whose council members have faced 37% cuts in this Parliament – say that efficiency savings have gone as far as they can.
Those spending realities are set to put town hall leaderships under greater pressure than ever before. If the economy continues to improve, the dissonance between economic confidence and declining public services will increase. The National Audit Office has this week suggested that central government is not fully aware of the impact that spending cuts will have on local authorities. But with further cuts on the way, it is council leaders rather than the government who will be punished first at the ballot box – and likely at the hands of minority parties that set themselves apart from a Westminster establishment associated with cuts.
Councils have prudently set aside some reserves for the cuts to come, and many are on a transformational journey to shift the way in which services are delivered. But they face a struggle to bring people with them on the journey. What can they do?
Firstly, this is the time for greater financial consultation and a move towards participatory budgeting in which local people are asked to grapple with tough spending decisions. Engage people in the tough choices and the scale of the challenge will be better understood. Handle the numbers behind closed doors and doubts remain.
Secondly, participatory budgeting then opens the door to councils looking for income generation to offset cuts. No one likes paying more for parking. Paying for waste collection by weight is widely resented. But the case is more easily made when the alternatives are clearer.
But while they make their cases to local people, councils need to make a case to Westminster for further devolution. On the significant such arrangements on offer in Manchester and the West Midlands, devolution enhances the position of local government and can pave the way for locally led growth. On a smaller scale, though, devolution can equip councils with the tools they need to tackle the cuts. Being hamstrung from the centre on the number of waste collections they must provide and the extent to which council tax can be increased leaves councils with few levers to pull while they attempt to manipulate an enormous local services machine.
Making the cuts is just part of the challenge. Successfully communicating around those cuts will be harder now than in 2010.
Jon Bennett is managing director of corporate communications consultancy Linstock Communications.
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