Alex Hilton: Politics is the art of drawing a line

The pain has not yet hit, but already the public is questioning the coalition on cuts.

Alex Hilton
Alex Hilton

As the issue that defined both the election and the formation of the coalition, David Cameron and Nick Clegg will be concerned by this week's Times/Populus opinion poll, in which three-quarters of respondents rejected the speed and scale of the planned cuts.

For months now, perhaps even for as long as a year, the Conservatives have led public opinion successfully to believe the cuts are necessary - they have, in fact, made a virtue of it. They have managed expectations, preparing every Briton for the pain that is to come, so successfully that the Liberal Democrats were forced to convert to the cuts agenda after the election was over.

But at that time it was just notional pain. People had not had a really good think about where they personally will be hit and which of their relatives will lose their jobs and their homes. It sounds a bit emotive, but public opinion is led by emotions.

And so this week at the TUC conference, the unions loudly challenged the received wisdom that there is no other way. They have been pushing for investment growth far harder than Labour, whose position has also been to cut, but just a little less - not a natural call to arms. Labour's leadership vacuum over the summer has also left the Government's position effectively unchallenged.

But the unions, with their talk of 'co-ordinated action', might yet save the Government - because politics in our democracy is the art of drawing a line and making sure there are more people on your side than the other. While public opinion might be swinging against the cuts, a 'spring of discontent' from the unions might allow the Government to draw a different line, where the unions have been demonised and are seen as some of the cause of the pain.

The next year will define this Government. If it outmanoeuvres the unions, it may stay on track. If not, expect an electoral pact between the Conservatives and Lib Dems by the next polling day.

Alex Hilton is a political communications adviser and former Labour parliamentary candidate

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