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Hit hard or hardly hit? Here’s what the British public feels about austerity

The British public’s perceptions of public services and spending cuts are shifting. My team at the Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute have updated the questions we asked in 2012 and 2013 – and at first glance, the public’s answers seem very worrying for the government.

So here’s the bad news: 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 measured, nearly twice the level we encountered in the early 2000s.

Ipsos MORI, Author provided

And this is reflected in views of individual health services: the proportions of people saying that GPs, hospitals and care for the elderly have got worse are all up, compared with two years ago.

This makes the NHS one of the biggest challenges which the government faces today. It almost always feels like the NHS is close to tipping into disaster, and the majority of the public always agree that it is in “crisis”. But the shifts we’ve noted should ring alarm bells.

The explanations for increased public nervousness will be varied, from direct experience of a more constrained service, to high-profile protests by health professionals, to lower staff advocacy for the service and press coverage of the looming deficit. But it will also partly come from the government’s own actions in “shining a light” on shortcomings. The very real funding gaps need to be filled somehow.

Perceptions of the police service have also taken a significant hit. Now, 39% of people think policing is worse than it was before. This is much higher than a couple of years ago when the figure was 28%. And again, people’s expectations of future change are the most negative that we’ve measured, so they think it will continue to get worse.

Ipsos MORI, Author provided

There is significant and sustained lobbying to protect police numbers. But in fact, we have relatively little contact with the police, compared with other public services like the NHS. So, the link between outcomes – such as job cuts for officers or falling crime rates – and how we feel about the service is less clear.

Holding steady

But views of other services are holding up. It’s true that there are more negative attitudes towards changes in schooling 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 have become worse, in recent years.

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

But most telling – and encouraging for the government’s plan – is the fact that the population as a whole seem much less concerned about the cuts than they did before. There’s been a similar shift in concern about the future impact of cuts. These days, more than half are not concerned, while it was only a third back in 2012.

The standout finding is that 76% say they haven’t really been affected by the cuts themselves and four in ten say 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.

Ipsos MORI, Author provided

So what accounts for this huge change, and why are we more worried about particular services, but less concerned about austerity measures on the whole?

Changing expectations about the progress of austerity are likely to be playing a part. We asked people what percentage of planned cuts to government spending had been made. In 2012, people said they thought we were 40% through the cuts. Now, they think we’ve only made 28% of planned cuts. But then it’s actually pretty much impossible to say whether these figures are correct or not, since the context and government plans keep shifting – so in that sense it’s an unfair question.

Even so, it is still a clear indication that many of us may be getting used to the idea of semi-permanent austerity. The government has convincingly set the 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. And the impact of the cuts are concentrated within a relatively small proportion of the population. Most people just don’t have that much direct interaction with most services such as doctors and the police on a day-to-day basis – the obvious exceptions being the NHS and the education system.

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

Good news for the government

The government is likely to take a lot of courage from these findings into their Comprehensive Spending Review next month, which will set out where the next round of spending cuts will fall.

Then again we know from previous research that tipping points on sensitive topics can come quickly. And another question on changes in spending shows that the public are likely to lay blame squarely with the government if we reach such a point.

We asked people how people thought spending in particular areas had changed in real terms over the past five years: that is, how much each had gone up or down. People think that the police have experienced the biggest drop in spending – down by 9%. In fact, the police budget has been cut by 20% since 2011.

Ipsos MORI, Author provided

But we’re generally very shaky on the facts of spending changes. We think that spending on pensions has decreased by 2% in the last five years, when it has 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. But they do determine how people feel, and this has clear political consequences. For now, it seems that there’s more good news than bad news for the government.

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