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The Political Pulse

Latest opinion research and analysis

The Politics of Britain's Economic Illiteracy

On 5th January last year, David Cameron launched his now infamous ‘We can’t go on like this. We’ll cut the deficit not the NHS’ election campaign posters. The mass advertising buy, popping up in all areas of the country, became a target for online satirists and vandals, focusing in particular on Mr Cameron’s seemingly airbrushed glare.

More importantly, however, there was seen to be a lack of coherence to the message. Some in Conservative circles have even suggested that it was a ‘coalition’ message, a compromise between two completely different posters, one on the economy – and another on protecting NHS services. There was always something bizarre about the hybrid creature that emerged.

The poster, however, hinged on two aspects of public understanding (aside from the widely held view that the NHS is ‘a good thing’): that people knew what cutting the deficit meant – and that they saw it as desirable. Indeed, it may have been the first UK election poster to have had at its core the specifics of macroeconomic policy. ‘Labour isn’t working’, ‘Tax bombshell’, ‘Britain is booming’ or even Labour’s amusing zombies from 2001 were about jobs, tax and interest rates – or the general feel of confidence in the economy – all key areas of concern to the general public, which are easily understood.

Fast forward to July 2011 and the release of interesting ComRes poll for the Institute for Economic Affairs yesterday, to accompany the latter’s new book ‘Sharper Axes, Lower Taxes’, and what isn't understood becomes clear.

When asked the proportion of national income spent by the government (real figure around 43% to 50% depending who you ask), an average said 61%, a guess that differed in no significant way between supporters of each main party. A full 12% believed we’re living in some sort of Communist dream world, with the government receiving between 91% and 100% of national income.

And what of the government’s spending plans? Only 9% said that the Coalition would add £350bn to the national debt (real figure probably just under £300bn, but who's quibbling?) by the time of the 2015 general election, with 7 in 10 respondents saying the government would wipe £350bn it.

We can of course be forgiven the latter argument amid a media narrative in which a Coalition government is making ‘huge’ cuts to the public sector, a message egged on, in part, by all political parties. Fears of cuts to services and benefits, with knock-on effects on housing and employment are understood, but there would seem to be no real comprehension of wider economic policy.

The newspaper City AM is in fact so concerned about levels of financial illiteracy that its Editor, Allister Heath, launched a campaign on the topic in January.

Within this context its easy to understand why the glaring Cameron posters, and indeed many subsequent arguments from Coalition figures on the danger of a rising debt, have failed to resonate.

What even is a deficit? How much does government spend? Why might it be a problem? If these questions are alien to your audience it might not be wise to campaign on them.