17 Oct 2010

The Axeman Cometh – and now for the poor too.

The coalition is proving masterful at manipulating the story. It now seems certain the Spending Review on Wednesday will involve dramatic and deep cuts affecting those on low incomes and benefits but the last three weeks have been dominated by pain for the “squeezed middle” and the rich.

The Spending Review leaks are coming thick and fast, coupled with a few choice hints from ministers. The coalition is proving masterful at manipulating the story. It now seems certain the Spending Review on Wednesday will involve dramatic and deep cuts affecting those on low incomes and benefits but the last three weeks have been dominated by talk of pain for the “squeezed middle” and the rich.

The Child Benefit cut for payers of 40% tax was widely criticised in the media as not having gone to plan for George Osborne at Conservative Party Conference, but in truth it did a clever job : making it look as though those at the top are bearing great pain. Saturday’s news about rail fares going up 30-40% also for many people conjures images of southern commuters who can basically afford it being asked to pay a bit more (even though the reality is that vast numbers of ordinary people will really struggle as rail fares rise). Raising student fees does a similar job : prompting headlines for days about squeezed middle class kids leaving university with massive debts before going into highly paid jobs and paying them off (although yes, there was also concern about putting poor people off university education) . And the defence cuts have been a great distraction for the government PR operation : with acres of coverage of whether aircraft carriers that won’t be delivered for years will have Harriers or helicopters flying off them before the new Joint Strike Fighters finally arrive in about eight years (if we’re lucky).

But over the next couple of days the bad news for those at the bottom will leak and be briefed in abundance. Already it seems child benefit is to be cut further – essentially being scrapped for most families whose children are over 16 years old. The building of affordable social housing will largely stop, as the budget is raided by between 60-80% to save billions. The government is intending to spend less on benefits paid to those living with disabilities. And it also intends to spend billions less on giving people on modest incomes tax credits.  (Read Faisal Islam’s blog on the details)

You might ask if the news gets out anyway what does the government gain by trying to manipulate it? Well, it is all about lasting impressions. This government wants to be seen as progressive – as doing more for those at the bottom than it does for those at the top. The last few weeks have been about establishing the coalition really cares about fairness, and is prepared to hit the better off. If that idea is well planted voters might not feel so bad about what is happening to those at the bottom. And if there are enough stories about waste and benefits cheats (as there were again this weekend) then they might regard more of those at the bottom as the undeserving poor.

We are entering an unprecedented period for news. There are going to be so many stories it is going to be very hard to know where to point our attention. And it will take a long time for much of it to emerge. Within Whitehall departments this wednesday will be “a good day to bury bad news” like no other before. But we may not actually get the details of how overall spending decisions impact on people and jobs at the frontline for months.

George Osborne has claimed the Conservatives are the true progressives in British politics. Whether we will be able to truly judge that on Wednesday is not clear. He’s done a good job of staying ahead of the story so far, dribbling it out in clever chunks. But even he is going to struggle to stay in control of the biggest cuts since the twenties.