One consistent theme on Red Brick has been the way the right and the media create hostility towards various groups in society, especially people on benefits, social housing tenants, and immigrants.
The British Social Attitudes Survey records and seeks to explain changes in attitudes over the 30 years it has been taking place, and the latest report contains some fascinating material.
Some areas of the welfare state continue to attract huge support, especially the Government’s responsibility to provide a decent standard of living for the elderly (96%) and to provide health care (97%). What has slipped over the last 20 years is public support for the proposition that it is the Government’s responsibility to provide a decent standard of living for the unemployed, down from 81% in 1985 to 59% (but still a healthy majority). Negative views about spending on benefits have grown consistently BUT there has been a reversal of the trend in the recent past, with support for extra spending on benefits rising from 28% in 2011 to 34% in 2012.
Attitudes to tax and spending have stayed remarkably consistent over the 30 years that the Survey has been conducted. The smallest proportion are those who want to reduce taxes and spend less and the majority of people waver between wanting to maintain the status quo and wanting to increase spending. There is some evidence that support for spending rises when the Tories are in power and falls when Labour is in power, presumably a reaction to the policies of the Governments.
There is also a remarkably enduring and consistent attitude towards inequality. In 1985, 69% said it was the Government’s responsibility to reduce income differences between the rich and the poor. This has wavered between 63% and 72% since, but in 2012 was back to 69%. Eight in 10 say the income gap is too large.
When asked what their highest and second highest priorities for public spending are, there is a huge leaning towards health followed by education (71% and 61%) with all other areas of spending trailing well behind. In the 1980s and early 1990s, housing was said to be a priority by more than 20%, but that declined to only 10% by 2003, since when it has climbed again, now up to 15%. It has normally been the third highest priority.
The authors conclude: ‘overall, the British public does not appear to have become less collectivist over time in its support for government activities and spending.’ However, ‘we see markedly reduced support for the government’s role in providing support for certain disadvantaged groups, particularly the unemployed.’
The public view that benefits are too high and discourage work strengthened considerably during the period of the last Labour Government. The report notes that ‘individuals are highly sensitive to cues that portray benefit recipients in an ‘undeserving’ light’ and finds that such ‘cues’ can actively crowd out other values. This, says the report, ‘has major implications for how the mass media and political elites should frame public support for welfare policies’.
The report concludes: ‘There is some evidence that we may be approaching a turning point, however. The 2012 data indicate that austerity and the experience of cuts to social security may be changing public attitudes towards a more sympathetic view of benefit claimants; in particular we see significantly more support for welfare spending in general, and for spending on unemployment benefits in particular, than we did in 2011.’
Evidence like this has major implications for Labour policy in the run up to the Election. Media hostility to public spending on social security is not generally reflected in the population, who are more liberal than the commentators. There is a specific issue concerning the unemployed, who have tended to lose public support, with fewer people giving priority to unemployment benefits and a majority of people still believing that people can get jobs if they want to. Labour’s compulsory jobs guarantee seems well tuned to tackling these changing views.
Many of the conclusions of the survey run contrary to the modern narrative of a more selfish people who are only concerned about the money in their own pockets. One lesson for Labour might be that it needs to be more bold and speak above the heads of the media and more directly to people, to enable it to connect with the more liberal and collectivist attitudes that, despite all the propaganda, still dominate amongst the public.