A secret recording of Mitt Romney talking to donors has been released by Mother Jones, a left-wing American magazine, and even to his wellwishers (myself included) it sounds dreadful. He declares that 47 per cent of Americans are ‘dependent’ on government and regard themselves as ‘victims’.

‘There are 47 per cent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what.’

In a press conference in California last night, he said his case was not ‘elegantly stated’ but says his figure stands. It’s true that 47 per cent of Americans don’t pay income tax (details here), it’s less clear how they are ‘dependent on government’. If you add Brits who derive most of their income from government jobs or welfare, you’d get to about half of registered voters. But it’s patronising and wrong to assume that these people will always vote for high-spending governments.

Romney’s logic is shared by sections of both right and left in Britain. You do hear Tories moan that Big Government has employed half the electorate, so how can they be expected to win? Anthony Giddens once argued that Britain will move to a left-wing era when half of the electorate has a stake in Big Government. Both points are wrong, and are not borne out by the evidence.

Just last weekend, a YouGov poll (pdf) showed there is virtually no difference in support for the Tories and Labour in the private and public sectors.

Normally, Labour has an advantage amongst public sector workers – but it’s by no means a Tory-free zone. You can work for the civil service and be infuriated about government waste. You can be dependent on benefits and long for a growing economy that will help you not to be dependent on benefits. You can be a pensioner, deriving most of your income from the state and still curse the ‘easy money, low rates’ policies that destroyed the value of your annuity, and robbed you of anything resembling a return on your nest-egg. The Manichean private/public divide that exists in the minds of some on both left and right simply does not exist in the real world.

So Romney’s equivalence between support from the government and support of the government is not just insulting, but simply incorrect. American politics is becoming so polarised that this may not hurt him in the polls as much as you’d think. He may argue that (as Baroness Thatcher is said to have remarked) that it doesn’t matter how much the people who don’t vote for you don’t like you. But he has given a demonstration of what should – in the SmartPhone age – be a basic political lesson: never say in a private meeting what you wouldn’t say in a public one.

PS Guido has figures suggesting that 46 per cent is about right for Britain too.

Tags: Mitt Romney, Republicans, US politics