Social attitudes during the double dip
Published on the eve of the Party Conference season, the 29th British Social Attitudes Survey makes for interesting reading. At first glance the Survey seems to paint a picture of an increasingly individualistic and xenophobic populace. Since 2008 sympathy for benefits claimants has declined markedly, not only for the long-term unemployed and single mothers, but also – albeit from a much higher starting point – for the elderly and disabled. Meanwhile, around half of those polled see immigration as having a negative impact, both culturally and economically. Three quarters would like to see it reduced. The authors of the report interpreted these results as a ‘hardening’ of attitudes against vulnerable groups. The Economist claimed they were evidence of a ‘right turn’ among voters that would benefit the Conservatives, while the Daily Mail asked if its mystical ‘liberal elite’ would ever ‘heed the voice of Britain?’.
Curiously, a quite different picture emerges when we look at attitudes towards the coalition’s programme of public spending cuts. The survey registered the first increase since 2002 in the number who would like to see spending on public services rise even if it means paying higher taxes. The NHS remains hugely popular – most agree that the dramatic 12% drop in its approval ratings from an all-time high of 70% represents anxiety about the coalition’s reforms rather than dissatisfaction with its performance.
Focussing on these results, The Huffington Post declared the UK to be ‘a nation of big spenders’. In The New Statesman George Eaton argued that “since around 88% of the coalition’s cuts have yet to be made, this is likely to be the beginning of a shift back towards support for a larger state”.
Since the beginning of the economic downturn, many commentators have been quick to offer mechanistic models for how public opinion would respond. For example, the often cited ‘Hitler in 1933’ analogy assumes that dwindling resources inevitably leads to inter-communal tensions and opens the door to the far right. While opposition to immigration and the EU (not helped by the Eurozone crisis) have certainly grown, right-wing extremists have spectacularly failed to benefit. Since the recession began the BNP’s vote has collapsed, Islamic fundamentalists have lost prominence and the pseudo-racist EDL have had only very limited success in their attempts to stir anti-Muslim sentiment. We should not be complacent. Economic hardship may lend greater resonance to ugly ideas than would otherwise be the case. However, it seems unlikely that 60 years of increasing intercultural familiarity and exchange, not to mention considerable social and legislative progress in tackling racism, will be undone.
Also drawing on the analogy of the 1930s, the greatest fear of the free-market right has been that populations would turn against international trade in favour of the false certainties of protectionism. In fact, there has been no clamber for governments to protect domestic industries from foreign competition. Except on the touchstone issue of immigration, popular calls to tighten borders have also remained muted, and even here the response by government has been largely rhetorical. This is in part because, despite its manifest failures in recent years, free-market dogma remains dominant within policy circles. However, it is also because after 30 years of global economic integration national economies have become hopelessly interdependent. For the moment at least, voters do not see ‘opting out’ of this network as a serious option. At best they seem to want to capture more of its benefits, particularly in the form of corporate tax receipts hidden offshore. Those on the right may paint even this as a dangerous swing against the market, but this only shows how much they have had it their own way until now.
The left’s main fear has been that the public would accept the need to let ‘disaster capitalists’ asset-strip the state in order to reduce public indebtedness. To date, these concerns have seemed more justified. A (narrow) majority did seem to respond in this way during the honeymoon period of the coalition, during which time higher education and the NHS were subjected to drastic market-friendly reforms. However, in the last year a lack of growth in the economy, the decimation of Lib Dem support, and the retoxification of the Tories following the phone-hacking scandal and April’s ‘omnishambles’ Budget, have dramatically altered the picture. Pushing through the rest of the austerity programme will test George Osborne’s ‘capitalist realism’ to the limit. If the economy does not begin to recover, the electorate’s tolerance seems unlikely to hold, even if the coalition partners can stay together.
So, in the fifth year of the economic crisis, and with no end in sight, none of these narratives can offer more than a partial account of the evolution of public opinion. There are various reasons for this. Firstly, attitudes are always plural, no matter how much politicians and Daily Mail editorialists would like to claim to speak on behalf of the majority. Secondly, contrary to received wisdom, history does not repeat itself. Certainly some attitude shifts may be broadly cyclical. The BSA Survey notes that demand for public investment tends to rise under Conservative governments as services are neglected, only to subside again under Labour. However, most changes evolve over time, and often quite imperceptibly. Opposition to welfare spending and immigration had been on the rise for more than a decade before the recession accelerated the trend. An even more powerful example is the transformation in gender relations. Most people do not now think that men should act as providers in hard times any more than women. This reflects a profound, and seemingly irreversible, cultural change.
The current cacophony of views reflects these interweaving dynamics. The most coherent picture that can be drawn at present is of a population that is angry but not exactly sure who to blame; with immigrants and ‘welfare scroungers’ only marginally ahead of bankers and tax evaders. We still seem to want a welfare state, but one that is universal rather than residual, and not disproportionately benefitting those perceived as contributing less to the economy and society. Both main parties can move in the direction of this new consensus, although it would severely test their shared commitment to the market and Labour’s still flickering sense of obligation to the poor.
But this pandering to the infamous ‘median voter’ can only further damage the image of politicians themselves – the only other group seriously competing with the ‘undeserving rich’ and ‘poor’ for public disdain. In any case this current ‘consensus’ is unstable and liable to change quickly. A better approach is to recognise that we are in a process of paradigm shift in which many of the accepted dogmas of the past are once again up for debate. The inevitability of rampant inequality and marketisation are being seriously questioned for the first time in a generation, but so is the commonsense of open immigration and EU membership. If the left is to harness the growing appetite for a new settlement, it will have to face down the ideological resistance of the old orthodoxy, which also underscores many of its own assumptions, as well as the threat of a nasty new brand of individualism emanating from the Conservative back benches. Political actors should not be ruled by focus groups, but they also should not ignore consistently expressed concerns. Only by listening carefully to the views of voters can they ever hope to respond to them, or, indeed, to change them.