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Five ways to sell the cuts

This is the third article in ConservativeHome's week long series on the Spending Review, and follows those on Monday by Peter Hoskin and yesterday by Sean Worth. Today, Mark Wallace suggests five ways in which the cuts can be communicated to the public. Follow Mark on Twitter.

Cutting It

The Spending Review is a political process as much as it is fiscal or economic. Alongside what to cut and how to cut it must sit the question of how to sell the cuts to the electorate.

We are already in a political situation on public spending, given the decision to ringfence health, education and pensioners' benefits in order to avoid losing votes at the last General Election. As Sean Worth argued yesterday, the secondary objective of the Spending Review - after the pursuit of deficit reduction - should be electoral success in 2015.

But as well as making spending decisions with the eventual campaign in mind, the Government should bring political campaign techniques to bear in communicating them. Here are five such techniques which those charged with making cuts should pin to their desks.

1) Call them what they are

Language is very important in politics. In recent years, particularly under Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, it was used to cover a multitude of sins - remember when our huge deficit was in fact "investment"? Brown had the bravado to go on the TV to talk about his aversion to passing on credit card debts to his children, when at the same time he was passing on his political debts to everyone else's children. He got away with it because he hid behind cunning language.

I am not arguing we should do the same on the cuts. It would be morally wrong to do so - and it would be politically disastrous given that the electorate are now the most spin-savvy in the world. A hint of florid language being used to disguise what are really cuts will bring down their wrath. It also suggests those reducing public spending have something to be ashamed of - as I will discuss below, we don't.

Instead, be up front. Be brutally honest - if a function of the state is being cut, say so. If overgenerous civil service perks or wasteful IT contracts are being cut, shout it from the rooftops.

2) Put in the groundwork

The nation, and the media, are keenly aware of how important this debate is. They had years of propaganda from Gordon Brown telling them that how good a service is should be measured in how much is spent on it. Conservatives have occasionally committed this sin, too, reinforcing the idea that less money must mean worse services.

As a result, persuading people to support cuts cannot happen overnight. There is a lengthy process between deciding what cuts are needed and implementing them. This involves years of producing persuasive proof that cuts can and should happen.

This cannot be skipped.

Arguably, the Conservatives are suffering now from the remarkably long period of time it took them to abandon the pledge to match Gordon Brown's spending plans. That promise was only ditched on 18th November 2008 - over a year after the banking crisis began in earnest, and several years after it had become clear New Labour were spending far more than the nation could afford.

The TaxPayers' Alliance (where I ran campaigns at the time) did much of that work instead, identifying waste and demonstrating that spending cuts were possible. The then-Opposition should have been fulfilling that role, rather than leaving it to third party groups. Conservatives cannot assume that being in government means we do not need to get embroiled in that kind of street-fighting today - the message needs to continually be sent out that waste can and should be eliminated.

3) Look after the pennies

Such is the scale of state spending, the number of zeros slung around has desensitized politicians to the quantities of money they are dealing in.

A good example is Ed Balls' proposed cut to Winter Fuel Payments for better-off pensioners. The immediate response from various Conservative sources was to pooh-pooh it as "only" saving £100m. 

While it is true that a £100m saving would only make a small dent in the deficit, it is a huge sum of money to most people. Moreover, thanks to the Euromillions, it is an imaginable sum - just. 

Getting into the Big State habit of treating fortunes as though they are chickenfeed is unhealthy if we want to maintain a low-tax conservative outlook on life - and it is insulting to taxpayers to dismiss their hard-earned money as a mere rounding error in the Treasury's ledgers. We must value every penny.

4) Do it for good, not just for now

Why do ministers say the cuts are taking place? The narrative has developed, particularly due to the pressure of making that late about-turn in 2008, that they are due to the financial crisis. These are emergency cuts, happening because the nation finds itself facing tough times.

It's understandable why this line was adopted. But it is the wrong one.

Consider what it suggests: that if the crisis hadn't happened, we would prefer to carry on spending and borrowing at Brownite rates. That if the economy is going ok then running such a vast deficit is sustainable or even desirable. That the level of borrowing didn't have anything to do with Britain's vulnerability to economic shocks. That if the economy recovers by 2015, Ed Balls would be perfectly justified to return to more and more public borrowing.

The flaws in this justification are already inflicting short-term political damage. Implying that the deficit is a casualty of the banking crisis leads people to demand the pain of austerity should fall on bank taxes rather than on lower spending. Those who don't want to accept that borrowing was too high have been handed an opportunity to squirm out of the real problem.

There are also long-term problems. Claiming the cuts are only an emergency measure leaves the door open for massive government deficits to return. These are tough battles we are fighting - do we really want to see Labour be able to break out the credit cards again a few years down the line?

We should be clear that balancing the books is a worthwhile aim, long-term, and that what has happened is a sign that deficit finance is a permanently broken, discredited policy. 

5) Make it moral

Finally, communicating fiscal policy should not be left solely to economists. Yes, the numbers need crunching and the spreadsheets must be filled in. But this is not just a question of mathematics and statistics. 

The battle against government debt is, ultimately, a moral issue as much as it is a practical one. 

This isn't just about the OBR, the IMF or the OECD. It isn't just about forecasts and dips, or billions and trillions. It is about our country's future, and the quality of our children's lives.

We must start to make the moral case for cutting the deficit.

Piling debt onto children as yet unborn, for them to labour to pay off all their lives, is wrong. Politicians signing IOUs on the back of cash-strapped workers places unacceptable burdens on people who can ill-afford to pay any more. Asking those workers to pay high taxes so those who don't work can earn more than them through welfare is unfair and unjust. Hobbling the nation's future economic prospects to avoid paying our own way today will create unemployment and misery down the line - the economic equivalent of dumping toxic waste into the water of a far off land. 

Only if we make this a moral issue, and drag the debate off the calculator screen and into real life, will we succeed.


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