The Public is tired of the same old excuse

The beginning of every government has a honeymoon period of being able to blame any problem on the actions of its predecessor. The current mob have been feeding off the line; “the deficit we inherited from Labour” on a daily basis. But there is only so long that the same song can be sung before the people get tired of hearing it. Eventually everyone got sick of Wet Wet Wet and Bryan Adams. With the economy shrinking in the last quarter by 0.6% the government is losing the sympathy of the public and it now appears that the use of this slogan is toxic for a politician.

Welsh Secretary of State Cheryl Gillian was the latest to suffer for daring to use the excuse on Thursday’s Question Time. The political version of Rome’s gladiatorial games is far better at gauging the mood of the country than the Eton school boy one-upmanship disguised as Prime Ministers Questions and the audience voiced made its displeasure apparent.

The beginning of the end for the line can be identified as the 11th of February edition of Question time when Cabinet Minister Frances Maude was subjected to a barrage of abuse from an audience irate at his reference to the previous government’s responsibility for the current levels of debt. The anger of the crowd was such that Jacquie Smith got away with faming boredom by pretending to yawn. When a representative of the mess makers is able to mock the recipients of the mess it goes a long way to showing how unpopular the excuse is. The scene was a remarkable one. Shouts of discontent rang around the room as the top finally blew off a populous increasingly disenfranchised by government policy. Cries of “bankers’ bonuses” rang out in an unusual example of audience misbehaviour that required David Dimbleby to act the stern headmaster before order was restored.

Whilst many see it as a tired argument there is no doubting its validity. I would number the factors why but then I would fall foul of repeating the very mistake I am highlighting. The important factor is that the Government has lost this advantage over Labour and the Big Society debate seems to have been the tipping point. The public had so far put up with the slashing of government funding through a number of departments but it seems that their patience has finally been breached in the face of the apparent hypocrisy of Mr Cameron’s flagship policy.

The Prime Minister’s aim is to recreate the communities of old where neighbours looked after each other and families took care of their elders. Government increasingly took over the role of caring for the people as Labour welfare policies engulfed the state. Welfare was becoming the same financial black hole that the NHS is. By slashing funding to charities and local government the Government is directly affecting the care homes and libraries that many see as fundamental to society. The smell of hypocrisy is in the air and this was exacerbated by Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, the retiring executive director of Community Service Volunteers. The much respected servant to volunteering who had voiced her support for the policy when it was announced has now become a harsh critic claiming that the cuts are “destroying the big society.”

But the presumably circumcised Dame Hoodless misses the point when she complains about budget cuts in volunteering. Volunteering and charities by definition shouldn’t rely on government funding. They are not supposed to be reliant on state funding otherwise they would just be part of the welfare system. It’s a mark of the size of government that charities are so dependent on it. According to the Times charities receive more money from government than public donations, £11bn as opposed to £10bn. Big society is as much about devolving the big government that grew to an incredibly bloated scale under the Labour years as it is about increasing the size of volunteer groups.

The government line about being left in recession and massive debt by the Labour party is undoubtedly stale. The problem is that it is true and it’s applicable to nearly every policy the coalition government is producing. They make cuts, the question ‘why’ is asked, and then the tired old argument is presented. It’s a horrible cycle that everyone is trapped in. The Government won’t change the line because it validates the majority of their changes.

The problem is the nature of party politics. British politics is far too tribal and that issue has been exacerbated now two of the big three parties are on the same side. It is very much an ‘us’ against ‘them’ climate in Westminster and this is obvious in practically every answer any politician gives. If you ask a coalition MP about a policy they will prioritise more time to pointing out how it is a response to a mistake by Labour rather than speak about the merits of the policy.

The nature of the Coalition’s defensiveness has been its weakness. Cameron has been very forthright in his beliefs and the strengths of the policy he wants to make, but the rest of his party, and the Liberal Democrats in particular, have been hesitant to endorse the merits of government policy. This was fundamental to the failure of transmitting the merits of their tuition fees to the public. The NUS is now privately backing the changes yet the perception is that everyone was against them. The same communication problems have haunted the planned forest sales which highlighted a major failing by Caroline Spelman to explain the policy to the masses. It appears that the whole scheme is going to be scrapped because of miscommunication in this very sensitive area. The British public was always likely to object to anything that could be perceived as a threat to the much loved woodlands and this government has not shown itself to be anything like adept at dealing with such issues.

Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair were both hugely successful by gauging the public mood and selling them their ideas; Cameron has yet to learn this art. As a result it seems that the Government is going to continue to relax in its comfort zone blaming Gordon Brown’s economic policy for cutbacks rather than spending time explaining the merits of the action it is taking. If this is the case then the state of the economy will have to improve and unemployment must fall.

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